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Professor Studying Scalability in Nanotechnology

By: 

Toby Weber

Dmitri Litvinov’s second project with the U.S. Navy will establish guidelines for nanoscale magnetic device design and production.

A professor with the University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering has received a grant from the United States Navy’s Office of Naval Research to investigate how magnetic materials behave at the nanometer level.

The Office of Naval Research has agreed to provide Dmitri Litvinov, associate professor in the departments of electrical & computer engineering and chemical & biomolecular engineering, with $150,000 over a three-year period.

That money will be used to research issues of scalability at the nano-level. Scalability, Litvinov explained, involves how device properties behave at different length scales. Materials have specific properties at the macro scale that scientists and industry rely on when conducting research or producing goods. For example, the largest electrical current a given diameter copper wire can carry is consistent. If the amount of current needs to be, doubled, for example, the cross-sectional area of the wire needs to be doubled, as well. Engineers rely on this relationship when determining the cross-sectional area of copper wire they need to design an electronic device or plan building wiring.

When a material is confined to the nanometer-level, however, its properties can change. This is because the atoms or molecules that make up the material are confined to such a small space that they are unable to act in the same manner as they do on the macro-level.

“Most physics laws are scalable,” said Litvinov. “But things change on the nanoscale. This grant is to first understand these changes and then to develop guidelines on how to do scaling properly.”

Litvinov said his research will include a combination of theoretical and experimental work. He and his research team will develop theories on how magnetic materials behave at the nano-level, compare those theories to how nanotech devices they create such as magnetic field sensors actually behave, and then refine their theories accordingly.

The principles of scalability on the nanolevel that Litvinov uncovers will be useful for the creation of multiple devices. “You can’t make a good device unless you know how the material is going to behave,” he said. On the military front, which is where the Navy’s interest lies, these principles can be useful for creating landmine sensors and tools that detect biological agents, for example. Other areas where this research can be applied are the medical and computing fields.

In addition to being significant in its own right, the grant represents an expansion of the Navy’s relationship with Litvinov and his Center for Nanomagnetic Systems, which is housed in the Cullen College of Engineering.

In 2005, Litvinov, along with a group of ECE graduate students, received a grant from the National Science Foundation to collaborate with two Navy laboratories. At the time of the original grant, Litvinov said, it was hoped that there would be more collaboration in the future, since the Navy often establishes long-term partnerships with researchers.

“Of course, nothing is guaranteed,” said Litvinov, “but as long as our research is fruitful, this new grant is a sign that the Center for Nanomagnetic Systems can have a productive partnership with the Navy for years to come.”

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