AUSTIN, Texas—Lynn Loo, assistant professor of chemical engineering at The University of Texas at Austin, has received a $440,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) Early Career Development (CAREER) Award to research new materials that can be used in the next generation of microelectronic applications.
NSF CAREER awards are given to exceptional young faculty members across the nation and are among the most prestigious honors they can receive. Loo’s award will be distributed over five years.
“With this funding, we proposed to develop an improved dielectric compatible with current-day chip and microelectronics technology manufacturing,” says Loo.
Loo’s group proposes to create a material that better insulates the wires that interconnect individual components of a computer chip. Her work will focus on developing low-k dielectric, plastic materials having nanoscale features.
A dielectric is a material that is a poor conductor but an efficient supporter of electrostatic fields. Usually, chip makers use silicon or nitride as dielectrics. Recently, however, with the drive to miniaturize electronics, engineers have turned to polymers—plastics—as dielectrics because of their natural capability to store charges (quantified by a quantity known as dielectric constant, or “k”). Low-k materials are especially useful when applied to tiny electronics, because as interconnects are placed closer together, electrical interference between wires increases. Low-k dielectrics minimize interference between wires, and reduce power loss and heat buildup. The lowest-k dielectrics in use have a “k” around 2.2, one being the lowest possible “k”.
Loo’s research group is creating porous, nano-sized materials to use as dielectrics. They begin with polymers containing UV-degradable blocks. After exposure to UV, these materials become 30 to 40 percent porous. Because air has a “k” of one, by incorporating air into their dielectrics, she and her group hope to manufacture materials that have a “k” lower than two.
The award also supports undergraduate and graduate curriculum development. An undergraduate chemical engineering lab class will incorporate elements of this research. Simultaneously, a graduate survey course on polymers that emphasizes hands-on experiments using state-of-the-art facilities on campus will be developed. Loo and her group will also focus on educating grade-school children about engineering concepts.
“One of the missions of the educational program is to strengthen and solidify the science curriculum in Austin’s public elementary and middle schools by encouraging hands-on, inquiry-based learning,” she says.
Learning materials and assessment tools developed at the university level will be placed on the Internet to facilitate access to elementary school teachers. A nano-exploratory exhibit will be displayed in the Austin Children’s Museum to promote science and engineering awareness among schoolchildren. Loo and her research group will also host exchange students from UT Pan American, UT Brownsville and UT El Paso through the Nano@Border Educational Outreach Program.
For more information contact: Becky Rische, College of Engineering, 512-471-7272.