Columbia Nano Initiative Names New Head, Continues to Expand

Thomas Theis (Photo by Timothy Lee Photographers)

With the appointment last spring of Thomas Theis as the inaugural executive director of the Columbia Nano Initiative (CNI), nanoscience research at Columbia continues to flourish. The University has long been a leader in this burgeoning field, and Theis—who brings a wealth of research and executive leadership experience that cuts across industry, government, and academia—comes at an opportune time. He will be key to bringing investigators together across campus and beyond.

“Many advances in nanofabrication have been motivated by applications in information technology—ever smaller transistors enabling ever faster, lower power, and less expensive IT systems,” says Theis. “But the uses of nanofabrication technology are expanding—supporting basic and applied research in diverse fields of science and engineering. Right now, Columbia faculty are exploring new ways of manipulating light for communication and computation; new materials with revolutionary mechanical, chemical, and electronic properties; new tools for biology and medicine; new devices for sensing and energy conversion; and more. CNI helps to attract and retain world-class faculty, and I’m excited about working with them to generate new research proposals and identify and implement new and unique capabilities for nanoscale fabrication and characterization.”

CNI is an interdisciplinary community within Columbia University dedicated to supporting and developing research in Nanoscale Science and Engineering. (Video by Jane Nisselson)

State-of-the-art facilities are essential to this multidisciplinary research effort, and Columbia Engineering has been supporting the addition of new CNI facilities as well as the expansion of existing ones, like the clean room on the 10th floor of the Schapiro Center for Engineering and Physical Science Research (CEPSR). The clean room, a critical facility for research that increasingly requires a contamination-free, controlled environment, is being fully renovated and will double in size, to about 5,000 square feet. Set to open this winter, the newly minted clean room will provide faculty, students, and researchers with access to cutting-edge nanofabrication and characterization capabilities with an improved supporting infrastructure.

“We expect the clean room will be used by many more researchers,” says CNI Facilities Director Nava Ariel-Sternberg. “The space is significantly larger, and we’ll have new and exciting technological capabilities—important new tools, as well as improved utilities—all necessary to accommodate innovative interdisciplinary nanotechnology research. We’ll be able to build all kinds of new devices in a clean and protected environment, working in nanophotonics, advanced electronics, microfluidics, and more, with novel materials like 2D semiconductors: graphene, transition metal dichalcogenides, and more.”

Among the new features of the clean room are improved temperature and humidity controls, better particle control, compressed air, nitrogen supply, and improved air handling units dedicated for the lab. There will be a host of new tools including a diffusion furnace for low-pressure chemical vapor deposition of several high-quality thin films, such as silicon (Si) oxide, Si nitride, and Si carbide; and two new plasma etchers, one based on fluorine chemistry and one based on chlorine chemistry, to assure the ability to etch a large variety of materials.

The Nanofabrication Clean Room is part of CNI’s shared labs, which also include a Shared Materials Characterization Laboratory and an Electron Microscopy Laboratory, both housed nearby in Havemeyer Hall. The Shared Labs Facilities offers a wide range of processing, characterization, and imaging instruments; and Ariel-Sternberg manages the labs serving the research community within and outside of Columbia University, as well as businesses and entrepreneurship ventures.

CNI was established at the University in 2014 to build upon and maintain Columbia’s strong and successful experiences with highly multidisciplinary and collaborative research programs in nanoscale science and engineering. The center supports multidisciplinary research in the Departments of Applied Physics, Chemical Engineering, Chemistry, Electrical Engineering, and Physics.

“The possibilities are just endless,” says CNI’s Science Director Keren Bergman, who is also Charles Batchelor Professor of Electrical Engineering. “The combination of our Columbia initiative together with national initiatives in nanoscience and nanotechnology is enabling us to pool all of our resources, and this is putting us in a place—in time and space—that’s unprecedented. We could not be more excited about the broad spectrum of opportunities emerging at the multidisciplinary intersections of nanoscale science and engineering.”

—by Holly Evarts