Gilbert receives NSF CAREER Award to study topological nanosystems



For decades, computer devices have improved in performance thanks to the miniaturization of transistors. The technology of these transistors has remained relatively static over the decades, but the ability to fit more transistors on each chip has long propelled the technological world forward on its road toward progress.

But not too far ahead, energy issues present a roadblock. As transistors become exponentially smaller, power consumption is exponentially greater. In order to maintain the technological advancement that the world has come to expect, many researchers are attempting to mitigate the electricity leakage in order to continue down this miniaturization path as long as possible.

Matthew Gilbert
Matthew Gilbert

Meanwhile, ECE Assistant Professor Matthew Gilbert searches for a new path toward progress – a new kind of material to make information processing systems. He has earned an NSF CAREER Award to study topological materials.

“These materials have topological states, which are protected by some underlying symmetry,” Gilbert said. “They have a lot of really bizarre properties.”

Those properties, Gilbert said, make topological materials very different from the materials that are traditionally used to make chips. They could be an answer to the semiconductor industry’s problems, he said.

Gilbert noted that while the current method of miniaturizing the old systems has allowed for significant technological strides, rising issues, like extreme power consumption, necessitate an out-of-the-box idea.

“If you want to solve a problem this big, you have to do something that’s disruptive,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert aims to study the behavior of topological materials at the nanoscale. He will test these topological nanosystems under a variety of operating conditions, in order to understand their applicability in information processing systems.

Because topological materials are fairly new phenomena to study, Gilbert turned to physics to gain a deeper understanding of the materials. The structure of many universities tends to separate physics and engineering departments into different colleges, Gilbert said. Often, this structure reduces the potential for constructive coordination between physicists and engineers. But Illinois is one of the exceptions.

“Here, ECE and Physics are in the same college,” Gilbert said. “So there’s almost no barrier at all to moving back and forth between them.”

It is this structural proximity of ECE ILLINOIS and the Department of Physics that has given Gilbert the tools and the connections he needs. He has worked with Physics faculty members on several projects in the past, and now he will use his greater understanding of physics concepts to help bridge the gap between theory and application of topological nanosystems. One of his goals is to create models that will be useful for researchers who wish to design and interpret experiments and circuits with topological materials.

Gilbert noted the benefits of the five-year length and security of the CAREER Award.

“The CAREER Award provides freedom to explore and follow all the little trails, and see where they lead,” Gilbert said. “It lets you ask some risker questions.”

The NSF CAREER Program awards junior faculty members who integrate outstanding research and excellent education initiatives. It is the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious award in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars.