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Sure our facilities are great, but our people are exceptional.

John Bardeen
John Bardeen brought semiconductor research to the Illinois campus in 1951. Photo courtesy of the Univ of Illinois Archives, RS 39/2/20.

MNTL faculty and students are conducting research that advances a broad range of applications, including high-speed data communications, high-efficiency lighting, solar power, flexible electronics, biosensors for drug discovery, biomedical imaging, disease diagnostics, vaccine delivery strategies, environmental monitoring, and novel microelectronics/photonics concepts for next-generation computing architectures.

Our researchers are part of an historic semiconductor legacy that began with engineering giants John Bardeen, Nick Holonyak Jr., and Chih-Tang Sah, whose groundbreaking work helped launch and advance today’s information technology revolution. They and their electrical engineering colleagues from the storied Electrical Engineering Research Lab—the precursor to the Micro & Nanotechnology Lab—set a standard of excellence that today’s faculty strive to meet.

In the beginning...

The only person to win two Nobel Prizes in the same field, John Bardeen brought semiconductor research to the Illinois campus in 1951 when the field was still in its infancy. Four years earlier, Bardeen and Walter Brattain invented the transistor at Bell Labs. Their boss, William Shockley, soon developed an improved version (junction transistor) of the their point-contact transistor, and the trio shared the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics for their discoveries.

Perhaps the most important invention of the 20th century, the transistor ushered in the modern electronics era and a myriad of products from satellites to pacemakers to computers and cell phones. The transistor also enabled the development of the integrated circuit—invented in 1958 by Illinois EE alumnus Jack Kilby (BSEE 1947) at Texas Instruments, who won the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physics for this discovery.

As an Illinois electrical engineering and physics faculty member, Bardeen co-developed the theory of superconductivity with graduate student Robert Schrieffer and post-doctoral researcher Leon Cooper in 1957; they won the 1972 Nobel Prize in Physics for this discovery. In the later part of his faculty career, Bardeen continued his research on condensed matter physics, including the study of quasi-one-dimensional metals. He also served on a White House science council and was a member of several corporate boards. Bardeen died in 1991.

Holonyak and Bardeen
Nick Holonyak Jr. (left) and John Bardeen look at an InGaP LED that Holonyak’s students made in the early 1970s. Photo courtesy Nick Holonyak Jr.

Let there be light

Nick Holonyak Jr. is perhaps best known for inventing the world’s first visible semiconductor laser and LED in 1962 at General Electric. His GaAsP red alloy LED paved the way for today’s solid-state lighting revolution that is replacing Edison’s incandescent bulb and other less efficient light sources.

An Illinois alumnus, Holonyak (BSEE 1950, MSEE 1951, PhD 1954) was John Bardeen’s first graduate student. After productive stints with Bell Labs and GE and service in the U.S. Army Signal Corps in Japan, Holonyak joined the Illinois faculty in 1963, establishing a research program in the Electrical Engineering Research Lab.

During the next four decades, he and his students produced major technology advances such as the world’s first quantum-well laser, the impurity-induced layer disordering technique for high-power lasers, and the stable native oxide for vertical-cavity surface-emitting lasers (VCSELs). Those advances led to brighter and more efficient LEDs and lasers and are used today in lasers for fiber-optic communications, CD and DVD players, optical storage, medical diagnosis, surgery, ophthalmology, and other applications.

The inventors of the transistor laser in 2004: Richard Chan, Gabriel Walter, Milton Feng, and Nick Holonyak Jr.
The inventors of the transistor laser in 2004 (clockwise upper left): Richard Chan, Gabriel Walter, Milton Feng, and Nick Holonyak Jr. Photo courtesy of M. Feng.

In 2004, he, fellow Electrical & Computer Engineering Professor Milton Feng, post-doctoral researcher Gabriel Walter, and graduate student Richard Chan invented the transistor laser, a three-terminal device that simultaneously delivers both an electrical signal and a coherent laser output. The transistor laser, which incorporates quantum wells into the base region of a high-speed heterojunction bipolar transistor, may lead to higher speed electronic-photonic integrated circuits for much faster computers and electronics.

Although he retired in 2013, Holonyak continues to collaborate and consult with Feng on transistor laser research. Holonyak is both a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. He and his former students, Russ Dupuis and George Craford, were among the recipients of the 2015 Charles Stark Draper Prize (aka the Nobel Prize for engineering) for their invention, development, and commercialization of materials and processes for LEDs.

A better way to make chips

Chih-Tang Sah
Chih-Tang Sah

Another Illinois alumnus, Chih-Tang Sah (BSEE & BS-physics, 1953) is best known for being a key developer of complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) technology, which is still the predominant circuit technology for manufacturing chips today. After earning his doctoral degree at Stanford, Sah worked at Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory for three years before joining Fairchild Semiconductor. At Fairchild, Sah co-led the team that developed wafer fabrication processes for manufacturing the first generation of silicon ICs.

Sah joined the Illinois faculty in 1964, bringing silicon device research—including field-effect transistors—to his alma mater. He’s also known for leading the team that established the department’s famed undergraduate integrated circuit fabrication course and lab (ECE 344/444). He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1986. Today Sah is the Academician Professor in the Physics Department at Xiamen University in China.

Bill Fry and another researcher in 1959 with a mechanical heart.
Bill Fry (right) and another researcher in 1959 with a mechanical heart. Photo courtesy of Univ of Illinois Archives, RS 39/2/20.

At the intersection of engineering and biology

MNTL bionanotechnology researchers follow in the footsteps of bioengineering pioneers like William Fry and Floyd Dunn, who were investigating ultrasound as a noninvasive diagnostic and surgical tool beginning in the late 1940s—well before there was a biomedical ultrasound industry, and even before researchers fully understood the potential and challenges of this technology.

Fry joined the Illinois faculty in 1946, and from his basement lab in EERL, he invented some of the first instruments to generate, detect, and measure ultrasound. He and his research group discovered important properties like speed of sound, absorption, attenuation, scattering, and impedance in living tissue, which paved the way for the safe use of the technique for diagnosis and therapy. Fry was also among the first researchers to use computers in diagnostic ultrasonography and neurosonic medical imaging to detect disease.

Although Fry died unexpectedly in 1968 at the age of 49, his brother Francis continued the innovative work, leading to many more “firsts” in the field, including the scanning and imaging of live human brains.

Pioneering ultrasound research

Electrical Engineering Professor Floyd Dunn (BSEE 1949, MSEE 1951, PhD 1956), who studied under Fry, made important research contributions to understanding how ultrasound propagates in and interacts with biological media. He almost single-handedly kept the field alive during a period in the 1960s when research interest temporarily waned. Today biomedical ultrasound is a multi-billion dollar per year industry.

During his 40-year career as an Illinois faculty member and director of the Bioacoustics Research Lab, Dunn conducted fundamental research that helped make ultrasound a safe and efficient diagnostic and therapeutic medical technique. His accomplishments impacted six major areas: absorption processes, nonlinear phenomena, applications in living systems, toxicity, measurement techniques, and acoustic microscopy.

Dunn, who was a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences, retired in 1995 and moved to Tucson, where he was an adjunct professor at the University of Arizona and served as an associate editor with the Acoustical Society of America. He died January 24, 2015.

Taking III-V compound semiconductor research to the next level

One of Nick Holonyak’s early graduate students, Greg Stillman (PhD 1967) is best known for developing evaluation techniques for compound semiconductor materials that researchers adopted universally. His data on gallium arsenide materials became the standard for evaluating carrier transport in all III-V semiconductors. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1985.

A former Air Force pilot with the Strategic Air Command, Stillman led the effort that brought $14 million in state funding to build the Microelectronics & Nanotechnology Lab (formerly the Microelectronics Lab), which was originally supported by a multi-million-dollar National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center grant when it opened in 1989. Stillman was also known at Illinois for being an outstanding teacher and mentor to hundreds of students during his 25-year faculty career. Although he died in 1999, his legacy continues through MNTL.

The dawning of the new century

MNTL faculty continue the record of research excellence established by Bardeen, Holonyak, and the others. For example, Ilesanmi Adesida, a former MNTL director and expert on high-speed transistors, was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2006 for his contributions to the nanometer-scale processing of semiconductor structures and applications in high-performance electronic and optoelectronic devices. Adesida served as the dean of the College of Engineering (2006-2012), as well as the provost or chief academic officer on the Urbana campus (2012-2015) before returning to the faculty in 2015.

An MNTL faculty affiliate and Materials Science & Engineering professor, John Rogers was elected to NAE in 2011 for his novel electronic and optoelectronic devices and systems. Renowned for his pioneering work in flexible electronics, Rogers combines soft, stretchable materials with micro-and nanoscale electronic components to create classes of devices with a wide range of practical applications.

ECE Professor Jim Coleman, an expert on MOCVD crystal growth, was elected to NAE in 2012 for contributions to semiconductor lasers and photonic materials. Coleman is currently a faculty member at the University of Texas-Dallas.

ECE Professor Gary Eden, who uses lasers to study how visible and UV light interact with matter, was elected to NAE in 2014 for the development and commercialization of microplasma technologies and excimer lasers. These lasers are used industrially in semiconductor manufacturing and clinically for eye surgeries. Eden co-founded two startup companies that license microplasma technology he developed at MNTL.

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