Sophisticated Equipment for Cutting-Edge Research: A Conversation with Supratik Guha

[LISA] Welcome to a special 15-year anniversary
episode of Stories from the NNI. I’m Lisa Friedersdorf, Director of the National
Nanotechnology Coordination Office. This afternoon, it’s my pleasure to welcome
Supratik Guha, Director of the Nanoscience and Technology Division in
the Center for Nanoscale Materials at Argonne National Laboratory. He also
serves as a Professor at the Institute for Molecular Engineering at the
University of Chicago. Prior to taking these positions, he spent 20 years at IBM,
where he pioneered research that led to IBM’s high dielectric constant metal gate transistor. Thank you so much for taking
the time to chat with us today. To get things started, can you tell us a little
bit about yourself and how you first got involved in nanotechnology? [SUPRATIK] I’m a
materials scientist mostly trained as an engineer. I grew up in India and studied
metallurgical engineering there before coming to this country about 34 years
back to do my PhD in essentially what we would call today semiconductor
nanotechnology. I had wanted to go into semiconductors and I connected with a
Professor at the University of Southern California called Anupam Madhukar who was
essentially doing research on nanotechnology. Looking at how can we
make smaller materials and devices controllably. And I did my PhD with him
and after that, in the early 90s, I moved on to IBM research, where I had the good
fortune of working, as a young man, in a department that had some of the giants
in the field of nanoscience, my bosses Leo Esaki and Leroy Chang for sure. And
then there were other people in the department such as Landauer, Fowler,
Tirso, Praveen Chaudhari. I worked in semiconductor nanotechnology from then
on and over time I ended up with a career
where I balanced both management duties as well as my research. [LISA] So it sounds like
a great opportunity that you had right out of school to work with some of the
pioneers that you mentioned. But now you are at the Center for
Nanoscale Materials and when we look at the NNI, the user facilities are a really
important part of the ecosystem. Your particular center follows three
scientific themes, quantum materials and sensing, manipulating nanoscale
interactions, and nanoscale dynamics. Can you discuss a little bit, from your
perspective, what projects you’re most excited about? [SUPRATIK] Yes I am happy to. The
quantum materials and sensing theme explores one of the most exciting areas
of research that is emerging right now. And it’s an area that fuses physics,
chemistry, materials science, computer science, and electrical engineering. And
it’s called quantum information sciences and it’s a way of processing information
using quantum bits instead of the classical bits that we are used to in
conventional computing. And we anticipate that this can enable in the future
orders of magnitude faster computation for certain types of problems. It can
also enable breakthroughs in secure communications, that’s already happening,
and being able to make sensors exquisite sensors with more sensitivity than what
classical methods allow us. In the second theme in the area of manipulating nanoscale interactions where we talk about the forces of interactions and they
could be mechanical or electromagnetic between atoms on length scales of let’s
say from sub nanometer to hundreds to a thousand nanometers. This is a really
interesting area that CNM or Center for Nanoscale Materials at Argonne is
pioneering. And one of the projects that we are working on is the development of
ultra flat lenses that use a completely different approach of creating images. It
takes a surface upon which we design structures that we call meta surfaces
just to make it sound complicated. And then we modulate that surface to
influence the scattering of light coming on to it and we’re able to, in this
fashion, build imaging systems that very, very thin. It gets rid of
conventional lensing systems. And if you think of lenses that are like flat
pancake-like,the width of a thin wafer, for instance, you can think of its many
advantages. The third theme, which is nanoscale dynamics, is opening a window
to the world of how materials behave when they are dynamically changing state
or their structure on very fast timescales. And I am talking picoseconds
to nanoseconds. And they’re changing the state or their structure in response to
light, or mechanical stimuli, or electrical stimuli. And we know very
little of this window we have a very small view through this window simply
because the equipment that will allow us to carry out these studies at such small
time scales and high spatial resolution did not exist till very recently. But
this is changing and here we are very excited that at the Center for nanoscale
materials we are getting an ultra-fast electron microscope that will allow us
to probe materials and image them at picosecond resolution and for certain
kinds of imaging at nanometer spatial resolution. And this will be available to
our users. This will be the first ultra-fast
electron microscope capable of high resolution spatial imaging and
diffraction in the world that will be available at a user facility. [LISA] So that’s very exciting to have an instrument that can probe at that spatial resolution
that quickly. So when you look at an instrument like the ultra-fast electron
microscope you just described, can you discuss a little bit what types of
measurements or experiments is that looking at, for instance, catalysis on a
surface? [SUPRATIK] There are many examples and I’ll try to give you a few different ones. So,
for instance, if something hits a material really hard, let’s see a bullet
hits a material or a material gets hit by a shockwave, what happens
to the material dynamically over scales of nanoseconds? We are not able to image
that picture clearly today, but we should be able to, and we are increasingly being
able to, do so with ultra-fast electron microscopy. Or if we hit the material
with light and it undergoes some sort of phase transformation,
what is the path by which it undergoes those transformations? Are there
ephemeral phases of materials that exist for brief moments of time that we don’t
know about? When we take an electrical device and we apply a voltage across it,
let’s say a transistor or a memory element, the device responds in a certain
way. In a transistor, its drive current changes in a memory element, you can
write a state, or you can read a state, or you can erase a state. What happens to
the microstructure again on picosecond to nanosecond timescales as let’s say a
memory element goes through the process of changing its state? We really know
very little about things on those ephemeral timescales. [LISA] We’ve heard from a
lot of small companies that access to facilities is really vital to their
success. Can you talk about how you are engaging with industry in your region? [SUPRATIK] So I’ll talk about the Center for Nanoscale Materials, it’s a user facility of the
Basic Energy Sciences Office of the Department of Energy. And it is one of
five such facilities nationwide. And it’s open to users from around the world and
we host some of the most sophisticated equipment in the nanosciences and
world-class scientists. Now we have industrial users and we also have been
increasingly setting up collaborations with industry in translating our science
in the use of their technology. And the Department of Energy is also very
interested in this and there are special funds that you may be aware of called
Technology Commercialization Funds. We apply for these, people from a
Department of Energy Lab and members of industry apply jointly. Industry has to
put in some investment and the Department of Energy puts in some
investment as well. And we’ve had quite a few of these technology
commercialization fund projects at the Center for Nanoscale Materials and these
have been recent projects and they are doing really well in the area of
nanoscale tribology, developing nanomaterials, using combinations of 2D
materials and diamond nanoparticles to produce solid-state lubricants that
achieve a condition of superlubricity or near zero coefficient of friction. So
that is work going on at CNM with a couple of companies, big companies in the
area of dry gas seal bearings or automotive components and so on. Then we
have interaction with a couple of Silicon Valley companies and things
related to micro electromechanical systems. And we do a lot of the
underlying science work there. I talked about the flat lenses and we have a
collaboration with large semiconductor equipment manufacturer in Silicon Valley
in trying to develop this technology. So there is increasing interest in
connecting to industry. I myself came from there, so I know this language and
this is just an example for the Center for Nanoscale Materials. Our sister user
facilities across the country have similar programs. [LISA] One of the things we
hear often about the NNI is that it really promoted this concept of
interdisciplinarity and the fact that nanotechnology was really at the
boundaries of traditional technical boundaries. What has your experience been
even as far back as when you were at IBM and now your experience at the
University and the lab in this concept of interdisciplinarity and do you feel
that things have changed over the past 15 years with respect to how people
viewed that type of collaboration? [SUPRATIK] Yes multidisciplinarity is certainly
something that we’re seeing a lot more of over the past I’d say 15 to 20 years.
And I do agree with you that the National Nanotechnology Initiative has
played a strong role in fostering this multidisciplinarity between chemists,
physicists, electrical engineers, biologists, and so on. I think the next
move is in further increasing this multidisciplinarity onto the social
sciences and to other areas of engineering as well. I, in particular, am
interested in this Nexus now between physical scientists and the social
scientists. They are from very different worlds, but from what little I’ve been
learning from my interactions on water sensing, I think there’s a lot that can
be done. A lot of the work in social sciences can be informed by more data
that we collect automatically from the land or from the water. Take a simple
question, for example. How does water quality in a river affect fisheries and
the economics of fisheries in a polluted area? This is a problem that will require
this type of multidisciplinary approach. In terms of colleagues working in
multidisciplinary areas, I think, from what I’ve seen, that has improved and
increased significantly. I have worked in industrial research, I’ve worked in
National Labs, and I have worked in universities now. I tend to think that
industrial research today leads in their use of multidisciplinary research. This
is followed by the National Labs and then the universities. [LISA] I want to look
toward the future.Can you think of challenges that are likely to be
impacted by nanotechnology? [SUPRATIK] I can think of three major challenges going forward
for the next 10, 15, 20 years. The first is in sensors. Sensing a wide variety of
things. You know, think of a central sensor network and
you can screw sensors in and out like you would like pumps. And this is where I
feel nanotechnologies and the nanosciences can provide enormous impact
combined with the advancements that are being made in low-power electronics, in
wireless radios, in system-on-a-chip technology, and artificial intelligence.
I think sensors are going to be big going forward. There’s impact on environmental science, food security, public policy, health, and
there are just so many other areas. And this business of the Internet of Things,
today is limited by the quality and availability of sensors and this is
where the nanosciences can come in. I think the second area is in the area of
new materials and devices for information processing for the future.
And this could be quantum information processing or classical computing as it
is different from today’s conventional architectures. And in the third area,
which I am less familiar with, but I think is big and there’s work already
happening here, is the application of nanotechnology to medicine. [LISA] I want to
thank you again for taking the time to talk with us today.
And I want to offer you the opportunity, do you have any closing thoughts that
you would like to share with our listeners? [SUPRATIK] I’ve been working in this
field now for most of my career across different materials, across different
systems. And what I’ve personally gained from it is the ability to interact with
and learn from a whole number of different specialists and experts
ranging all the way from public policy experts to electrical engineers. And I
think nanociences has been the vehicle for me to be able to approach
this multidisciplinarity. Thank you for joining us today for this special 15
year anniversary edition of Stories from the NNI. If you would like to learn
more about nanotechnology please visit or email us at
[email protected] and check back here for more stories.

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