Jean-Pierre Leburton


Jean-Pierre Leburton
Jean-Pierre Leburton

Q: What is your area of expertise?
A: Nanostructure and device physics. I develop physical models to understand the behavior and operations on novel nanoscale electronic and optical devices. I also use these models to explore new properties of nanostructures. My field of expertise extends from nanoscale silicon transistor operation to the study of quantum wires and quantum dots with the intimate quantum behavior of charge carriers such as the spin of electrons for applications in quantum information processing. I am also interested in molecular electronics to investigate transport in carbon nanotubes and graphene, and more recently the interface between semiconductors and biological systems.

Q: Give me a brief synopsis of your education and career.
A: I received my PhD from the University of Liege, Belgium in 1978 where I also got my BS degree. A year later, I moved to Munich, Germany to work for two years as a research scientist for the Siemens Company after which I joined the University of Illinois in 1981. I started my academic career with the Coordinated Science Laboratory as a visiting Research Assistant Professor, and have been with the University of Illinois ever since that time. During these years I have also been a Visiting Professor at the University of Tokyo in 1992 and Invited Professor at the Swiss Federal Polytechnical Institute in Lausanne, Switzerland in 2000. I am presently the G. Stillman Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Q: You have been at Illinois since 1981. What do you enjoy most about being here?
A: This is a great place to teach and do research while exercising unlimited intellectual freedom. The scientific environment is especially unique as I’ve never seen so much technical expertise in my own field and related areas assembled into a single place. There are so many great people among my colleagues and the student body is one of the best in the nation.

Q: Why did you become an engineer?
A: I became an engineer by vocation and opportunity. I studied solid state physics in Belgium, where the topic of my PhD was semiconductor physics. At that time, with the emergence of microprocessors and advances in materials processing, it was almost natural to seek to exploit the new technology for new kinds of electronic or optical devices. I always liked the theoretical aspect of research for which one develops physical models to understand the behavior of materials, but also that provides opportunities to explore novel material properties for applications in high performances and functionality device electronics. My background in solid state physics was ideally suited for that purpose, so I became interested in device physics. When I had the opportunity to join the University of Illinois, I did not hesitate to become an electrical engineer. I still have an interest in the physical properties of matter, and new forms of materials, however, especially in nanostructures and the interaction between solid state and biology.

Q: How did you become interested in research aspects of your field and what keeps you interested?
A: I always wanted to do research from the time I was in high school when I discovered physics in class. I wanted to know what the universe was made of, and how it works. When I got my Physics degree, it was a new beginning and a new approach in my way of learning the material world. I was offered several positions in industry, but I especially choose the one where I could do research. Device physics provided the conditions to exercise my expertise in solid state physics and investigate its applications in real material systems. I also like to explore new frontiers in the field.

Q: Tell me about a research accomplishment you’re proud of.
A: About 20 years ago I started to investigate the transport properties of quantum wires, which were emerging as novel solid state structures. In these nanostructures, electrons can only move along one direction without scattering sideway; I found this to be very neat because the physics is relatively simple, while simultaneously offering new possibilities for application in high speed electronics. I developed a so-called Monte Carlo simulation code for this purpose, and made several predictions that were later confirmed. At that time people were skeptical about the potential of quantum wires for semiconductor electronics. Today nanowires are strong contenders for integrated electronics. I am very happy to have pioneered the basic theory of these structures 20 years ago.

Q: What do you enjoy most about teaching?
A: I mostly enjoy the contact with the students. Teaching is very good ways to deeply understand any particular topic by explaining it to others. It also contributes to the realization that you may not have completely assimilated all the aspects of a particular subject, and forces you to discover new topics that don’t have direct relation with your main scientific interest. This broadens your knowledge, and the scope of your scientific interest, and in this respect helps your own research.

Q: What made you want to go into teaching?
A: I really wanted to be in the University environment to enjoy academic freedom for my research. In addition, teaching offers opportunity to learn from your students who have different interests, different expertise and ideas than yours. I believe this is more valuable than doing research in a private company where you can be subjected to changing research directions because of the company decision. I had this experience with Siemens when I left to come to Illinois. At that time, the company decided to close its fundamental research division to re-orient it toward more profitable activities.

Q: What role do students play in your research?
A: Oh they are very important. They are essential to my research through their daily work and technical discussions on their research topics. My students probably do between 80-90% of the research that I am pursuing. I could not do anything without them.

Q: Over the years, you have received several service awards. Which one is most meaningful to you? Why?
A: Actually there are two honors that are very meaningful to me. The first is my elevation to the grade of Fellow of the IEEE for which I was proud to be recognized by my peers in my engineering society. The second is as Fellow of the American Physics Society, because this was the recognition of my work as a physicist. The two of them characterize my expertise and my research.

Q: What are you focused on today?
A: I am doing research in a new scientific area that merges semiconductor physics with biology. It is my belief that the conjunction between these two fields will continue to grow, and will be extremely interesting to watch in the future. It bears potential for many applications, not only in the field of biomedicines but also in the field of nanoelectronics, with its possibility to exploit the high functionality of life molecules and make very powerful hybrid bionanoelectronic devices.

Q: What does the future hold?
A: The fading of the borderline between traditional scientific disciplines and the emergence of new fields such as bio-nanoelectronics at the crossing point between biology, physics, chemistry, electrical and mechanical engineering as well as materials science. The areas of life science and physical science are converging and will become an important area of research in the future with huge societal impact.

Q: What technology that’s currently under development are you most anxious or excited to see completed?

The manipulation of quantum objects like the spin of the electron has been anticipated as a new frontier in its way to process information with the capability to solve problems intractable by “classical” computers. Today information processing is based on the manipulation of the electron charge that we can detect as electric currents or through capacitors. Because they lack analogy with the classical world, quantum objects like the spin of the electron are more difficult to detect and manipulate. The development of a quantum gates has generated a lot of enthusiasm in the past 10 years because of the achievement of important experimental breakthroughs. However a large number of technical challenges remain and it would be interesting to see how this field is evolving and if one will manage to manipulate the electron spin in a way that is reliable, reproducible and efficient.