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Old Materials Gain New Applications

Within the past 20 years, portable devices such as mobile phones and laptop computers have become increasingly important parts of everyday life. The ability to carry such devices from place to place has revolutionized communication, academic study, project management, and more. That technology exists largely due to the transistor.

Transistors are essentially switches that turn on and off depending on the function being performed. Typically made with semiconductors, transistors are steadily becoming problematic as scientists approach the limit of how small they can be made while still maintaining effectiveness. This is where Veerle Keppens, director of the UT-ORNL Joint Institute for Advanced Materials and head of the materials science and engineering department in UT’s Tickle College of Engineering, and graduate student Amanda Haglund step in.

Graduate student Amanda Haglund examines some of the crystals grown for Dr. Keppens' project.“I’m trying to grow materials that were first discovered in the 1960s but have not received much attention since,” said Haglund. “They’re semiconductors and they’re magnetic at the same time. With these, if we can make magnetic-based transistors they could switch faster than the existing semiconductors.”

According to Keppens, these transistors would be more efficient and able to continue decreasing in size. In its second year, Keppens’s JDRD project has had some success growing crystals uncovered by Haglund’s research. For the remainder of the year, the team plans to continue pulling materials from the history books.

“I’m still trying to find new ones to grow. When you look at the elements in a compound, you see that you should be able to grow a new material by replacing some of its constituents with elements that have similar properties. But nobody’s done it yet, so there are a few that I’m trying to figure out how to get them to grow,” said Haglund.

Keppens’s goal is to close the final year of this JDRD project with a strong proof of concept she can then leverage to bring larger grants into the university.

“A lot of times NSF [the National Science Foundation] and DOD [the US Department of Defense] want some results, something that shows you can actually do what you’re saying you can do, that it’s something you have expertise in so you can expand on it with bigger federal funding grants,” said Keppens.

Keppens’s team is working in parallel with their ORNL partner, staff scientist Thomas Ward, in an emerging research area. According to Ward, the collaboration between these two projects has the potential to place UT and ORNL as leaders in the field as it continues to develop.