by Matthew Chin
A multidisciplinary team of researchers from UCLA and other universities is poised to help turn science fiction into reality — in the form of some of the world’s tiniest electromagnetic devices — thanks to a major grant from the National Science Foundation’s Engineering Research Center program.
The grant, worth up to $35 million over 10 years, will fund a new center headquartered at UCLA’s Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science that will focus on research aimed at developing highly efficient and powerful electromagnetic systems roughly the size of a biological cell — systems that can power a range of devices, from miniaturized consumer electronics and technologies important for national security to as-yet unimagined machines, like nanoscale submarines that can navigate through the human blood stream.
Employing a fundamentally new approach to electromagnetic power at the nanoscale, researchers at the NSF-funded TANMS center (Translational Applications of Nanoscale Multiferroic Systems) are working to replace traditional wire-based electronics with a revolutionary technique that couples electricity and magnetism by using multiferroic materials, which can be magnetically switched “on” and “off” by an electric field.
UCLA’s partners in the new center include UC Berkeley, Cornell University, Switzerland’s ETH Zurich and California State University, Northridge.
“At UCLA, we strive to conduct research that pushes the boundaries of knowledge and benefits society in practical ways, and this new center is a prime example of that pursuit,” UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said. “The National Science Foundation award for this major research center reflects the excellence and commitment of our renowned faculty and the quality of their collaborations with colleagues at other institutions.”
“TANMS could spur a true paradigm shift for new devices that were once thought of as science fiction but now appear just over the horizon,” said Vijay K. Dhir, dean of UCLA Engineering. “This new engineering research center’s roster includes world-class faculty, and along with the best students in world, they will create and develop amazing new technologies that will certainly be exciting to see.”
“We believe this is an opportunity for a truly revolutionary change in miniaturized electromagnetic devices,” said Greg Carman, director of the new center and a UCLA professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering professor. “If you combine all three of our application areas — memory, antennas and motors — it really opens the possibilities of what new platforms may become possible. For example, it might be possible to build a remote submarine similar to the one described in the 1960s movie ‘Fantastic Voyage.’ Imagine a miniature submarine, at length-scales similar to red blood cells, that could be controlled and move through the blood stream.
“Present electromagnetic devices are based on concepts discovered nearly 200 years ago, and, while working well in large systems, they suffer from severe limitations in the small scale,” he added. “TANMS overcomes this problem by developing a new, game-changing approach to produce electromagnetic fields using nanoscale multiferroic materials with lengths as small as a few hundred atoms.”
Electromagnetic devices are ubiquitous in today’s world, from smart phones and computers to the simple motors that automatically roll up car windows. All of these devices operate by passing an electric current through a wire, a concept first demonstrated in the early 1800s. And while this technology works extremely well in the large scale, it fails in the small scale and has been a roadblock to advancements in miniaturization. Much like water flowing through a pipe, as a wire’s diameter decreases, so does the amount of current flowing through it, limiting the ability of this current–through-a-wire approach to create and control electromagnetic energy.
The new approach being developed by TANMS researchers seeks to solve this problem by taking advantage of multiferroic materials, which use electric fields to intrinsically switch the magnetic state of a material, similar to switching a light bulb on and off. Over the past decade, these researchers have led explorative efforts demonstrating the unique properties present in multiferroics at the nanoscale. These discoveries are leading to an entirely new method of controlling electromagnetic devices to revolutionize antennas, memory and motors at extremely small scales — an approach previously considered implausible.
“With platform technologies such as the ones we are developing, new, active devices that are more efficient, substantially smaller and more powerful will be available to engineers working on a wide class of problems, including the critical-care needs facing our nation,” said Carman, who is a member of the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA. “Of course, each individual focus application represents a significant advancement. For example, the ability to decrease the antenna size in a cell phone by an order of magnitude is an important step not only for consumers but also the military. I feel very fortunate to lead the world’s best academic researchers in nanoscale multiferroics, and the whole team is truly excited about the unique opportunities and discoveries that await us during this 10-year NSF program.”
While the new center’s major focus is on research, it also aims to develop a unique ecosystem around the five-university alliance focused on both education and commercialization. TANMS faculty are already working closely with UCLA’s Institute for Technology Advancement to help define and transition to market the intellectual property that will be developed under the new program. And 21 companies, ranging from small businesses to large corporations, have sent letters of interest to help translate and commercialize TANMS discoveries.
On the educational front, TANMS has a unique “cradle-to-career” program that will introduce high school students to the center’s facilities, as well as provide them with unique opportunities throughout their college careers. TANMS’s educational philosophy focuses on teaching students about the important interactions between the engineering and business sectors that are necessary to advance new technologies that benefit society.
“The United States always led in technology development during the last century, and to continue this, our country needs to expand the pipeline of future engineers and scientists with more students from diverse backgrounds,” Carman said. “At TANMS, we envision high school students, undergraduates and graduate students all taking part in both research and translational efforts associated with the research. We are trying to help our best and brightest students find their path toward being the next Henry Ford, Steve Jobs or Henry Samueli. I firmly believe that teaching our students that engineering is as much about business as it is about science will lead to a new wave students of interested in entering engineering school, and I expect our new paradigm to become a model program for other universities across the country.”
The National Science Foundation’s Engineering Research Center (ERC) program, established in 1985, fosters extensive collaborations to create technological breakthroughs for new products and services and to prepare U.S. engineering graduates for successful participation in the global economy. The nanosystems ERCs — or NERCs — are expected to create transformational science and engineering platforms for the respective fields of nanoscale research, education and innovation. As appropriate to its particular areas of research, each NERC will highlight the societal and environmental implications of its nano-enabled scientific and technological breakthroughs. For more on the National Science Foundation, visit www.nsf.gov.