UTD’s ATOM FABRICATION CENTER IS BLAZING THE TRAIL
Some might recall episodes of Star Trek that feature the use of “replicators,” which can create almost anything (even fried catfish), seemingly out of thin air, with the touch of a button.
Being able to construct objects at the atomic level would change everything.
That’s what Reza Moheimani and his team at the University of Texas at Dallas (UTD) Center for Atomically Precise Fabrication of Solid-State Quantum Devices are working toward: developing the tools and process for manipulating matter — in his case, silicon atoms — to allow for the construction of quantum computers, which could solve problems exponentially faster.
But before quantum computers can exist, people like Moheimani, who serves as a mechanical enigneering faculty member and James Von Ehr Distinguished Chair, must develop equipment that can construct extremely precise microscopic silicon circuits that convey minuscule levels of electrical current involved in quantum computing.
One of those in the private sector working with Moheimani is John N. Randall, president of Richardson-based Zyvex Labs, which specializes in nanotechnology. Randall — also a founding faculty member of the center — equates today’s computers with the vacuum-tube-operated radios of the 1920s and ‘30s.
To build a quantum silicon circuit, scientists start with a flat silicon surface, bathed in hydrogen atoms; then they use a device informally called a scanning/tunneling microscope to remove some hydrogen atoms from the surface of the silicon, replacing them with a different element — sulfur, for example.
“The basic [tunneling microscope] instrument hasn’t been changed since it was invented” more than 30 years ago, says Randall, an adjunct UTD faculty member.
“In some ways, it’s a [poor]microscope. It has horrible distortions. It is very unreliable. But money hasn’t gone into improving it. We’ve made some great strides” in improving the scope, he says, adding that Moheimani and his team have played a key role in those improvements.
While existing microscopes tunnel at the atomic level, the devices — and the atoms involved — lose stability during the process, Randall explains. Moheimani and his former Ph.D. student, Dr. Michael Ruppert, wrote an award-winning paper that spelled out a way to build a better-performing device with much greater precision.
This article is part of the 2020 Higher Education Review Magazine.