Lyding receives NBIC award

ECE News

Jonathan Damery, ECE ILLINOIS

Story Highlights

  • Professor Joseph Lyding was honored with the Award for Research Excellence in Nanotechnology, given by the Bio/Nano Interface Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • As the honoree, Professor Lyding gave the keynote address at the annual NanoDays@Penn event, in which he outlined past and ongoing research.
  • He encouraged the younger audience to think outside the box, to test and pursue unconventional research projects.

Late last month, Professor Joseph W Lyding gave the keynote address at the NanoDays@Penn on the University of Pennsylvania campus. He had been honored with the Award for Research Excellence in Nanotechnology, which is accorded to one international researcher each year by Penn’s Bio/Nano Interface Center, and his talk capped a daylong event that united the academic research community with Philadelphia-area high-school students and the public.

Professor Joseph Lyding, at right, accepting award from NBIC Director A. T. Charlie Johnson. Image courtesy of Felice Macera, University of Pennsylvania.
Professor Joseph Lyding, at right, accepting award from NBIC Director A. T. Charlie Johnson. Image courtesy of Felice Macera, University of Pennsylvania.
As such, a lecture about silicon-based nanotechnology and scanning tunneling microscopy could be difficult to connect to all members of the audience, but Lyding didn’t find that to be the case. “The take-home message that I tend to give to younger audiences is think outside of the box,” he said. “Be willing to try things that older, more experienced people might say, that’s a dumb idea, and you’re wasting your time. In reality, you might be making an important discovery.”

Throughout his research career, Lyding has done just that. He’s overturned previously held ideas and conventions. As a young faculty member, in the late 1980s, he switched his research emphasis to focus on scanning probe microscopy, a new technology at the time, which allowed for researches to see atomic-level surfaces. “I had no background in it whatsoever, and people said, ‘This guy’s nuts,’” Lyding recalled with a laugh. “But it worked out, you know. There was no way of knowing a priori that that was going to happen. It was just a big risk.”

Using that microscopy technology, Lyding has succeeded at finding solutions to problems that had been overlooked previously. One of his most highly cited papers pertains to deuterium processing, whereby an atom-thick layer of deuterium is used to create a high-reliability interface in microprocessor chips. “I was looking at very, very fundamental surface science. You know, the idea of moving atoms around and looking at what kind of future things you could make at the atomic level,” he recalled. “Out of that popped this effect, that basically had gone unobserved, that could be mapped onto today’s technology.”

The deuterium layer increases the reliability of the semiconductor as much as fifty times, and it was licensed by Samsung in 2010. Now it has been incorporated into the devices that are used around the world, even in the lecture hall where Lyding was giving the keynote. “I pointed that out,” he said. “If you have an iPhone in your pocket, it’s full of deuterium. All the smartphone chips Samsung makes for probably Androids as well as iPhones are loaded with deuterium.”

Fundamental scientific research sparked an unexpected but now ubiquitous technological application. “I fully expect that there are many, many undiscovered opportunities like that that are going to come out of nanotechnology,” Lyding said. “That’s just one example.” 

Among his most recent research, self-healing carbon nanotubes, which he mentioned later in the NanoDays talk, could someday be incorporated into very cheap, high-performance transistors. Heat created by operating the transistor can mend junctions within a carbon nanotube network, and like deuterium processing, which promised much greater longevity for the microprocessors, self-healing nanotubes have shown as much as 100 times performance improvement after self-healing. 

“What few people know, and this is the other thing I [pointed out] when I gave this talk, is I explained to them, transistors actually have a lifetime. Nobody thinks that’s true, because we all buy new devices every few years. But the real lifetime if you were to run a microprocessor chip all out, it would last about 10 years, and then it would fail,” Lyding said. While in most applications—like a smartphone or computer—a tenfold increase in longevity would be relatively impractical (we’d upgrade long before that point), the same improvements also mean the devices can be operated more intensively over a shorter period of time. Smartphones can perform larger computations with deuterium-processed microprocessors, and eventually, the same could be true of self-healing nanotube-based transistors. 

For the award, A.T. Charlie Johnson, the director of the Nano/Bio Interface Center wrote that the committee was “unanimous” in recognizing Lyding’s “outstanding” research. Lyding for his part, felt honored. “Some of the past recipients have been sort of my idols,” he said. “These folks have been icons in my research field for the past two or three decades…So to even be considered in that light is quite an honor for me.”

Lyding hopes that high school students and undergrads in the audience will be motivated to pursue research. As an undergraduate, “I had no interest in going to grad school,” Lyding recalled. Then a professor invited him to do a semester of undergraduate research, and he did it. “It was a wide awakening. I felt like I was back home with mom and dad [who immersed themselves into their artwork and hobbies], doing all those crazy things and immersing myself into it. And then it just changed the whole picture for me. I try to pass that experience along to as many students as possible.”

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