Lyding wins Foresight Institute Feynman Prize

6/9/2015 Claire Hettinger, ECE ILLINOIS

Professor Joseph Lyding received the Foresight Institute Feynman Prize in honor of his research and experimentation in the field of nanotechnology, specifically with Scanning Tunneling Microscopy.

Written by Claire Hettinger, ECE ILLINOIS

Professor Joseph W Lyding received the Foresight Institute Feynman Prize, a premier honor for his research and development in the field of nanotechnology from the Foresight Institute, a think tank and public interest organization that focuses on molecular nanotechnology.

Professor Joseph Lyding accepts the 2014 Foresight Institute Feynman Prize for experimental work.
Professor Joseph Lyding accepts the 2014 Foresight Institute Feynman Prize for experimental work.

Lyding was one of two winners of the prize. He received the experimental prize for his exemplary experimentation in nanotechnology and his work in creating the Hydrogen Resist Lithography technology as well as for his contributions to the development of Scanning Tunneling Microscopy. The theory prize went to Amanda Barnard, the first women to receive the honor, for her research of diamond nanoparticles.

Lyding’s prize is the result of his career at Illinois, which started more than 30 years ago. This award was given because of his invention of hydrogen lithography, for patterning silicon, but also in honor of the revolutionary work Lyding has done with research and experimentation at the atomic level with Scanning Tunneling Microscopes.

The Foresight Institute presented Lyding with the prize in Palo Alto, California during the May 29-31 “Atomic Precision for Medical Applications” workshop. The prize is named after Richard Feynman who created the field of nanotechnology with his 1959 “There’s plenty of room at the bottom” speech. Feynman was decades ahead of his time and is considered a pioneer and the godfather of nanotechnology.

Mark Ratner, interim dean of the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University and longtime colleague of Lyding’s, said the Feynman Prize recognizes people who have contributed to the understanding of nanotechnology and made huge socially important advances.

“Joe is a treasure,” Ratner said. “He doesn’t brag about his accomplishments; he just does it.”

Throughout his career, Lyding has made huge discoveries while working at atomic level precision. The scale of his work is small but not scientifically small problems. Lyding changed the field of nanotechnology and developed tools and processes now used around the world.

Within his first year at Illinois, Lyding went to a conference in Baltimore to present a paper, and while he was there he heard the creator of STM presenting his technology, which is when everything changed for Lyding.

“It was just so exciting to see that result. As soon as I got back from the conference, I started in on it," he said. "It took me about a year but I actually built my first STM in my office. The darn thing worked. I couldn’t believe it.”

Lyding said there were times when his experimentation didn’t seem rational or like the best career plan, but after much exploring and dedication Lyding built the first STM in Midwest.

“Everything about it was new for me," Lyding said. "It was risky because I put the project I was hired for by (Professor John) Bardeen on hold. He wasn’t too sure about that, but once I got the STM to work he was square behind me. He loved it - he thought it was a great thing.”

Joseph W Lyding
Joseph W Lyding

Lyding developed his hydrogen resist lithography technique for silicon due to silicon’s technological relevance. In hydrogen resist lithography, electrons from the STM are used to remove hydrogen from the silicon surface with single-atom precision. It is this technique and capability that is central to Lyding receiving the Feynman Prize.

Silicon is quite reactive but Lyding figured out how to stabilize it, Ratner said. Lyding blocked the reactivity with hydrogen atoms, which was “earth changing” for the computational world Ratner said, the use of the Hydrogen Lithography is something “everybody’s done, but Joe invented.”

Lyding’s technique also enabled unprecedented scientific studies of hydrogen on silicon. Following a suggestion from Phaedon Avouris at IBM, Lyding repeated some of his experiments using hydrogen’s isotope deuterium and found a dramatic isotope effect with deuterium being much more difficult to remove from silicon.

After publishing this result, it struck Lyding during a conversation with Professor Karl Hess that deuterium could be used to stabilize transistors against the degrading effects of energetic electrons that desorb hydrogen at the gate dielectric-silicon interface. Working with industry, Lyding then demonstrated that deuterium increased chip lifetimes by factors of 10-50. As a result, deuterium is now used in advanced chip production and Samsung has licensed this technology from the university. 

Lyding said Feynman was a great explainer and a great investigator of understanding things at their most basic level, a quality Lyding tries to achieve in his own work. Lyding said he tries to think of problems at every detail and tries to find simple answers much like Feynman did.

“The message I tell the undergrads and grad students is have fun. Get involved in research,” Lyding said, “because your creativity is going to come out when you are actually enjoying what you are doing, not just working hard and toiling without that in sight.”

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This story was published June 9, 2015.