New faculty Zhu to develop next-generation nanoscale materials & devices


A former researcher at IBM, Wenjuan Zhu joined the Electrical & Computer Engineering and MNTL faculty as an assistant professor in August. Her research explores new materials that can be fabricated into the next generation of nanoscale devices.

“To my knowledge, the University of Illinois is one of the best universities in engineering, so that’s a place I wanted to be,” said Zhu. “The faculty here are experts and they are very friendly. The cleanrooms and research labs on campus are also very impressive.”

After earning her doctorate from Yale University in 2003, Zhu took a job with IBM’s Semiconductor Research & Development Center in Fishkill, NY. She developed an ultra-thin gate dielectric process with excellent performance and process stability for CMOS 65nm technology. IBM used this technology to build its powerXcell processor and the Roadrunner supercomputer.

In 2007, she was promoted to lead integrator for IBM’s 32nm technology. She and her team built the first prototype 32nm chip with high-k dielectrics and metal gate. She received the Outstanding Achievement Award at IBM for this work.

A year later, Zhu took a job at IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, NY, where she explored new two-dimensional (2D) materials such as graphene and transition metal dichalcogenides (TMDCs).

Graphene is a 2D material containing pure carbon atoms in the form of a very thin sheet that is only one atom thick. It is flexible, transparent and has high mobility.

“I studied the fundamental properties of graphene, such as current transport and band gap engineering, gate dielectrics, and electronic transport in graphene wrinkles,” Zhu said. “We also explored graphene electronic devices such as radio frequency (RF) devices on rigid and flexible substrates, and photonic devices such as photo-detectors and plasmonic devices.”

One of the TMDCs that she and her team investigated was molybdenum disulphide (MoS2), which has a 1.8 ev bandgap, potentially making it suitable for logic devices. They found that devices fabricated from MoS2 have the potential to suppress short-channel effects, an inherent problem with silicon CMOS chips as they scale ever smaller.

As an Illinois faculty member housed in MNTL, Zhu will continue her research on 2D materials, identifying their unique electronic and photonic properties. As she and her students further develop the materials, they will fabricate nanoscale devices.

“For metallic 2D materials, such as graphene, we can take advantage of the high carrier mobility to build plasmonic devices and solar cells with transparent electrodes.” Zhu explained. “For semiconducting 2D materials, such as MoS2 and WSe2, we can take advantage of their atomically thin body and make sub-10nm transistors for computing. We are also very interested in combining 2D material with traditional semiconducting material and exploring their applications in computation, communications, energy, and medical areas.”