As electronic devices—from iPhones to tablets—increasingly touch all facets of people’s lives, there is growing demand for technology that is smaller, faster and more mobile and powerful than ever before.
For research that could very well revolutionize how electronic devices are manufactured in the future, Dr. Joseph Lyding, a professor at the University of Illinois, won the 2014 Feynman Prize in nanotechnology from the Foresight Institute—a leading think tank focusing on nanotechnology.
Lyding, whose work is sponsored by the Office of Naval Research (ONR), received the award May 30. The prize honors researchers who have made pioneering contributions to nanotechnology—the engineering of materials and systems at the molecular and atomic levels.
“I’m humbled and honored to receive this award,” said Lyding. “I receive all my funding for this work from ONR, so without their generosity, this research would not be possible.”
Lyding’s groundbreaking efforts deal with lithography, the process by which electronic semiconductors are currently made. Lithography is a high-tech stenciling process that places a tiny “shield” etched with circuitry patterns on top of a silicon surface.
The problem with traditional lithography, Lyding said, is that it can’t keep up with swelling consumer appetites for electronic devices with decreased size, broader capabilities and greater energy efficiency.
He illustrates this challenge with the example of a cell phone. Inside each hand-held device are miniature silicon semiconductors lined with intricate circuitry. Despite this miniscule size, however, each circuit still comprises hundreds of atoms. But, using advanced microscope technology enabling him to see semiconductor surfaces on an atomic level, Lyding has developed methods to both view and manipulate surface material the size of a single atom.
“My research is still very much early and exploratory,” said Lyding, “but the ability to modify material at the atomic level could lead to the construction of future semiconductors that are much smaller and much more powerful than today’s—by machines that are just as small.”
Such future implications are important, said ONR Program Officer Dr. Chagaan Baatar, who oversees Lyding’s funding.
“From ONR’s perspective, this is especially valuable for our unmanned autonomous vehicles,” said Baatar. “These vehicles are limited in their size and require extremely small and sophisticated circuitry that must fit into tight spaces. These electronic devices also must be very powerful yet use energy efficiently. So Dr. Lyding’s research is critical to both our present and future science and technology initiatives.”
Improved autonomous systems are crucial to the Navy and Marine Corps future force. For example, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert’s Sailing Directions to the fleet note that over the next 10-15 years, the Navy will evolve and remain the preeminent maritime force—and autonomy will play a key role moving forward. It directs: “Unmanned systems in the air and water will employ greater autonomy and be fully integrated with their manned counterparts.”