The University of Houston Magazine

Not a Dirty Little Secret

UH’s Latest Tier One Research Facility, the ‘Cleanroom,’ Supports Academia, Industry.

by Laura Tolley

UH Cleanroom labThis is a room that can definitely pass the white-glove test.

One of the newest research centers on the University of Houston campus is the Nanofabrication Facility, which boasts a state- of-the-art “cleanroom” that is virtually free of dust and other contaminants and has strict controls on humidity. Anyone entering it must don protective gear, and there are even special mops and buckets used to clean it.

This center supports the growth of innovative, Tier One research at UH and in the surrounding community, making it an important regional resource for academia and industry. Funded research projects supported by the facility total in the millions of dollars and the consolidation of equipment into one facility results in substantial savings to UH.

Led by Dmitri Litvinov, professor of electrical and computer engineering, the Nanofab is a “core facility” under UH’s Division of Research, meaning it’s open for use by all faculty and students at the university as well as outside nanotech researchers.

Litvinov said the facility’s cleanroom (as they call it) is the only integrated, shared fabrication resource in the Houston metropolitan area. With the acquisition of key pieces of cutting-edge equipment, the site “will elevate nanoscience research in the area to a globally competitive level.”

The cleanroom’s state-of-the-art tools enable scientists to manipulate materials at the micro-nanoscale in an environment virtually free from dust and other contaminants that can interfere with their results.

“This is a strategic investment for the university and the nanotech community.”

— Joseph W. Tedesco, Elizabeth D. Rockwell Dean and professor in the UH Cullen College of Engineering

“On this scale, these nano-objects are so small and often packed so close to each other, one dust particle can ruin the entire system such as an integrated array of nanosensors we are developing for early cancer diagnostics,” Litvinov said.

Research labThe facility is equipped with instruments and tools to create micro- and nanoscale structures, most commonly on silicon wafers, for integrated circuits, microelectromechanical systems, microfluidic devices and other systems. It’s of the caliber found at major pharmacological and high-tech institutions.

“This is a strategic investment for the university and the nanotech community,” said Joseph W. Tedesco, Elizabeth D. Rockwell Dean and professor in the UH Cullen College of Engineering. “It further establishes UH as a major source of nanotech and innovation and offer with the region’s nanotech community.”

UH officials and researchers turned out recently for a dedication and open house for the Nanofab, which first opened its doors to users in 2009. Currently, the facility has 94 users from UH, 14 from Rice University and two industrial users.

The facility’s construction costs were approximately $6 million, funded in partnership by the Division of Research, the provost’s office, the Cullen College of Engineering, the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics and the Alliance for Nanohealth. The initial equipment, valued at $1 million, came from Litvinov’s own lab.

An additional $2 million funded from grants was used to purchase more equipment, including a focused ion beam and a deep reactive ion etcher. Finally, a new $1 million e-Beam writer has arrived and is being installed in the facility. There is only one other e-Beam writer in a four-state area, an older model at The University of Texas at Austin.

An e-Beam writer uses a beam of electrons to write a pattern directly into a photoresist, which is a polymer used to cover a silicon wafer. A covered silicon wafer is used to make structures in the cleanroom.

Research labSo far, more than $7 million has been awarded to UH projects conducted in the cleanroom. Sponsors include the Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, Texas Advanced Research Program and The Welch Foundation.

Litvinov said in addition to making nanotechnology capabilities more widely available, sharing equipment helps increase researchers’ understanding of how these tools work and sets the stage for future collaboration.

“The machines in this facility are very complex. Having multiple users can quickly build up the knowledge base about what this equipment can do and how to do it,” Litvinov said. “If you’re attempting to do something new, you can just call up the other people who work in the same facility and ask if they have any insight. Those conversations can accelerate your research and can also lead to research partnerships.”

In Memoriam

Neal R. Amundson (1916-2011)

by Lisa K. Merkl (’92, M.A. ’97)

Neal R. AmundsonFive years ago, the headline of a University of Houston news release announced, “‘Father of Chemical Engineering’ Turns 90, Still Teaching at UH.” On Feb. 16, 2011, this great mind finally called it a day. Neal R. Amundson died at the age of 95.

Regarded as one of the nation’s most prominent chemical engineering educators, Amundson was a pioneer of chemical reaction engineering. His contributions to the field included analyzing and modeling chemical reactors, separation systems, polymerization and coal combustion.  A landmark example of this work included being the mind behind the math to help nuclear submarines keep their cool in case of power failure. He constructed a model and participated in the design of that system in the first nuclear sub.

As a Cullen Professor Emeritus of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and Professor of Mathematics, Amundson held appointments at both the Cullen College of Engineering and the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics (NSM).

“While we are deeply saddened at this great loss, Neal Amundson’s impact to UH and the profession has been, and will continue to be, extremely profound,” said Cullen College dean, Joseph W. Tedesco.

NSM’s dean, Mark A. Smith, added: “To this day, he remains the world’s most famous chemical engineer and is credited with bringing mathematics and computation to the discipline.”

“Neal was single-handedly responsible for building one of the best chemical engineering departments in the country at UM [University of Minnesota],” said Dan Luss, Cullen Professor of Chemical Engineering at UH, who earned his Ph.D. under Amundson at UM. “He came to UH and was instrumental in putting our chemical engineering program on the map.”

Throughout his seven decades in engineering education and research, Amundson’s contributions were recognized by many prestigious organizations. Among them were the American Institute of Chemical Engineers; the American Chemical Society; the American Society of Engineering Education; and the International Symposia of Chemical Reaction Engineering, an organization that named an award in his honor.

Inducted into the National Academy of Engineering in 1970, Amundson was a recipient of the NAE Founders’ Award. He also was an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and holds honorary doctorates from the University of Minnesota, University of Notre Dame, University of Pennsylvania, University of Guadalajara and Northwestern University. A three-time UM graduate, he earned a B.S. and M.S. in chemical engineering in 1937 and 1945, respectively, and a Ph.D. in mathematics in 1947.

He also was recognized by his peers and the institutions he served. At UM, the building that houses the department of chemical engineering and materials science was named in his honor, and UH’s department of chemical and biomolecular engineering named their annual lecture series for him. Additionally, he was honored with the Esther Farfel Award, UH’s highest faculty award.

Colleagues and friends from across the United States and Mexico gathered in March at UH to remember Amundson in a tribute featuring talks from top engineers and scientists who worked with and studied under Amundson during his lifetime.

Plans are under way to create an endowed chair of chemical engineering in Amundson’s name. UH’s department of chemical and biomolecular engineering hopes to raise $1 million to establish the fund.