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UW Physics Professor Researches Possibility of Electronic Devices Produced on Smaller Scale
March 14, 2012 — Adrian Feiguin adheres to the notion that what drives knowledge is curiosity. It is that curiosity which has him on a quest to convert his theory that materials used in electronic devices -- such as cell phones and iPads -- can eventually be produced on a smaller level and made more energy efficient.
"My passion has always been to understand the exotic behavior of nature when you get to the atomic scale," says the University of Wyoming assistant professor of physics. "You can picture realizing new physics that doesn't necessarily exist in this world. Imagine creating new materials with this knowledge."
To advance his theoretical physics research, Feiguin is using a $460,000 grant he received from the National Science Foundation. Feiguin received a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award from NSF approximately two years ago.
The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program is a foundation-wide activity that offers the NSF's most prestigious awards in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations. Only assistant professors without tenure are eligible. The CAREER Program is intended for faculty members who are at or near the beginning of their careers.
"I consider myself a theorist. I use theory to study the behavior of matter under extreme conditions -- within very strong magnetic fields, at very low temperatures and at very high pressure," Feiguin says. "Under these conditions, the quantum nature of matter manifests itself and shows in the physical properties of these systems."
To understand non-equilibrium (time-dependent) phenomena in condensed matter systems, Feiguin is using a computational approach to explain and predict natural processes, which he said "produces results that are more precise and unbiased" than pure brain power.
Specifically, he said his research -- conducted using powerful computers located in the IT Building's data center on campus -- has potential applications for quantum computing, nano-electronics (use of nanotechnology on electronic components, such as transistors) and spintronics. Spintronics, or spin electronics, refers to devices that take advantage of an electron's quantum property, which is called "spin." Aligning spins in a material creates magnetism.
Silicon materials have long been the industry staple for creating components and microchips in electronic devices. Feiguin envisions the day when those components become carbon-based.
"We are reaching the limit of miniaturization of devices. Potentially, you can picture a new generation of electric devices that not only will have transistors, capacitors and dials, but will have quantum components," he says. "You can build structures with carbon that you cannot build with other materials. You can connect organic molecules to carbon wires."
He adds, "With electronics, you can go smaller. The reason you want to go small is not only to add more components in a chip, but you want to use less power. You also can use quantum mechanics to your advantage to create a new generation of devices."
Quantum mechanics is used for predicting the behaviors of microscopic particles. For example, when the size of transistors is reduced to the atomic scale, Feiguin says quantum mechanics starts to manifest itself and electrons behave differently.
"A transistor is not a transistor any more in a behavioral sense. It starts to have quantum behavior," he says."When this happens, electrons start to become ‘quantum' electrons."
For a visual, most people can understand electricity traveling through a wire or water flowing through a pipe, he says. With quantum behavior, the transport space for electrons or liquid narrows, resulting in the flow being reduced to quick bursts rather than in a steady pattern. Charge and current are quantized, Feiguin says.
"We want to understand nature from an elemental level. Once you understand how nature works, you can use that knowledge to design or build new technologies," Feiguin says. "We'd love to see our research realized in the real world."
Adrian Feiguin, a University of Wyoming assistant professor of physics, is using his $460,000 NSF CAREER Award to advance his theory that materials used in electronic devices can eventually be produced on a smaller level and made more energy efficient. His research has potential applications for quantum computing, nano-electronics (use of nanotechnology on electronic components, such as transistors) and spintronics.