Composing the Future: Inside the Nano Fabrication Lab
Composing the Future
Inside the Nano Fabrication Lab
Story and Photos by Heather Coit
Video by Nic Morse and Virgil Ward
Setting the Stage for Next-Generation Engineers
When visitors enter the atrium of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Building, they are greeted by the glow of a yellow-hued clean room and its exposed floor-to-ceiling windows. Students and faculty, who are accustomed to the Nano Fabrication Lab’s commanding presence, pass by another world brimming with discoveries on the other side of the glass.
This 3,000-square foot, limited-access space is considered a critical environment designed to provide a high level of cleanliness, which allows the head-to-toe covered occupants the ability to control materials at new scales.
Dane Sievers, the engineering teaching lab coordinator for the ECE instructional cleanroom laboratories, hopes that manipulating these materials at the smallest scales will lead to significant advances in medicine, energy, defense and much more.
“What we do in the Nanolab has never been done before,” Sievers said. “We are looking at material properties, optical properties, air flow, acoustics, surface tension and many other things we can manipulate. We’re adding energy in very controlled ways to make things dance; anything we can think of to encourage materials to move how we want them to.”
Housed beneath the rows of flume hoods are workstations, which support equipment and their processes, like carbon-nanotube fabric printing, planar vacuum ultraviolet light source and processes, nanosphere lithography and a Vapor-phase Metal-assisted chemical etch system. A Keyence optical microscope, which can magnify objects up to 6,000 times, rounds out this high-tech ensemble.
If the Nanolab were a concert stage, the orchestra would be made up of graduate student researchers acting as first chairs, undergraduate students acting as second chairs and Sievers guiding the sections as their conductor.
Producing the best sound requires Sievers to create a cross-disciplined space where both groups of students learn technologies together in real time.
“This environment between research and instruction benefits the collaborators because it allows us to identify some of the best students at a very early age,” Sievers said. “What we’re doing in the Nanolab is creating next-generation engineers and giving them the tools that they can’t get anywhere else.”
Lukas Janavicius, a third-year Ph.D. candidate in the ECE Department, is one student whose research trajectory has been shaped by the Nanolab. He is the concert master to Sievers’ conductor and has made the lab a second home since his undergraduate days. He admits that some people call him “mini Dane” because of his close-working relationship and shared knowledge with Sievers.
The mentorship formed in 2018 when ECE Professor Joseph Lyding introduced his lab student, Janavicius, an Electrical Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering dual major, to Sievers after learning that the two were working on separate nanospheres projects. When it became clear that Janavicius loved building things, Sievers knew he’d found the right student to take on a VP-MacEtch reactor, which was based off a concept from ECE Professor Emerita Xiuling Li.
"The opportunity to work on a project where I could design, write code and experiment was an exciting opportunity,” Janavicius said. “Because this is the first reactor of its kind, most of the literature on reactor design and construction came from crystal growth (MOCVD) or Ion etching.”
The vapor phase reactor is a response to the challenge of making higher-performing, 3D semiconductor devices found in LEDs and batteries, for example. From scratch, Janavicius designed, fabricated and assembled the reactor, which selectively removes material around a catalyst during the process of dry etching vertically aligned semiconductor nanowires. Using a high-aspect ratio, the vapor phase reaction can control production of arrays of pillars on a semiconductor surface. Improving uniformity across the wafer is key to a better performance.
“That's really the advantage of the vapor phase in that you can almost instantaneously change etching conditions, whereas liquid is slower to transport and flows through,” he said.
“I do have faith in the technology and think that if we keep working on it, it's just going to keep getting better. I'm going to see it through as far as I can.”
Third-year Ph.D. candidate, Electrical and Computer Engineering
Fine Tuning a Springboard for Innovation
Janavicius is enjoying the fruits of his labor after his VP-MacEtch reactor manuscript was recently approved and published in AIP Publishing. He still has much to do as his immediate plans include extending the MacEtch technique to additional, wide-bandgap semiconductors in response to current etching techniques, which are slower and induce crystal damage. Further down the road, he plans to work on a new reactor control system.
Now in his fifth year as a Grainger Engineer, he attributes extending his studies here to the reactor and the continued opportunities the Nanolab provides him.
“There's always enough variety within the project that it's never boring,” he said. “I do have faith in the technology and think that if we keep working on it, it's just going to keep getting better. I'm going to see it through as far as I can.”
Janavicius currently spends about 15 hours a week in the Nanolab where he balances existing projects, like nanosphere lithography, and develops new projects. He also teaches ECE 518 graduate-level students in the fall and ECE 481 undergraduate students in the spring. Classes are a mix of engineering students representing disciplines like materials science, electrical engineering, physics and chemistry.
“Right now, most of the research time that I'm doing is working with my peers on various projects, expanding our processes to incorporate their projects a little better or collaborating with other groups to use some of the Nanolab’s technologies.”
Sievers makes coordinating these synergistic relationships between researchers and students a priority “to maximize the knowledge that’s transferred or learned.”
“The students that we’re training are going to bring those experiences with them to their career, which will help bring new technologies to market faster and benefit society in ways that we don’t expect,” Sievers said.
He also credits department faculty for supporting the creation of the Nanolab, which he helped conceive, plan and procure, along with developing lab curriculum. Their collaboration turned the lab into a community resource with infinite possibilities.
“We have to have a vision in order to lead in instruction and research” Sievers said. “In the Nanolab, we are continuously changing the curriculum to reflect current state-of-the-art technologies, which keeps us at the forefront. We’re moving into the realm of what comes next, and that’s everything.”