Tufts Engineer Receives a $1.5 Million NSF-MRI Grant for Technology Crucial in the Development of Semiconductors

October 30, 2013

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Alexander Reid

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MEDFORD/SOMERVILLE, Mass. – Tufts University School of Engineering Assistant Professor Tom Vandervelde has received a Major Research Instrumentation grant from the National Science Foundation. The grant will enable Vandervelde to build a multi-chamber molecular beam epitaxy (MBE) system that will anchor a new laboratory able to generate advanced semiconductors for not only for his research needs, but also external academic and industrial users.

"By providing an inexpensive option for researchers looking to create unique, one-off devices, this facility can fill a critical void in the semiconductor field," says Vandervelde, who is the John A. and Dorothy M. Adams Faculty Development Professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at Tufts.  Professor Vandervelde is also the director of the Renewable Energy and Applied Photonics Laboratories at Tufts University (REAP.ece.tufts.edu).

Vandervelde's work involves advanced semiconductors, which form the basis of all modern electronics and are frequently created using MBE systems. These semiconductors make possible sophisticated electronics such as high-speed transistors in cellular phones, night vision systems used by the United States military, and WiFi.

The MBE process allows researchers to deposit one single elemental atom at a time, building up atomic layers of materials on a flat substrate inside a single vacuum chamber, which isolates the sample from contaminants, including the air itself. The NSF grant will allow Vandervelde to build a system in which scientists can transfer a single sample through a series of interconnected deposition chambers, all within an extreme vacuum.

The sequential deposition of different combinations of materials within each respective chamber will allow for the creation of novel materials and the development of state-of-the-art semiconductor devices with unprecedented capabilities. Some examples include ultra-efficient solar cells, computer chips with photonic interconnects, and infrared cameras for medical diagnosis.

The MBE system will be the foundation of an Epitaxial Core Laboratory in the School of Engineering. This new facility will be directed by Vandervelde, and staffed by an experienced epitaxialist, who will maintain the system and generate samples for academic and industrial researchers.

Vandervelde has won multiple prestigious research awards including a $400,000 early career award from the National Science Foundation in 2011 for promising research on the conversion of heat to electricity.

That same year, he was awarded a $450,000 early career award from the United States Air Force Office of Scientific Research for research into multi-modal infrared cameras.

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Tufts University School of Engineering is uniquely positioned to educate the technological leaders of tomorrow. Located on Tufts' Medford/Somerville campus, the School of Engineering offers the best of a liberal arts college atmosphere coupled with the intellectual and technological resources of a world-class research-intensive university. Its goals are to educate engineers who are committed to the innovative and ethical application of technology to solve societal problems, and to be a leader among peer institutions in targeted areas of interdisciplinary research and education. Strategic areas of emphasis include programs in bioengineering, sustainability, and innovation in engineering education.