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TAF brings new metrology system closer to market

As engineers keep packing more computing power into smaller platforms, they find themselves facing a new challenge. It stems from the fact that when you make a material extremely small, its properties change. Scientists understand how gold—for example—conducts electrons and responds to various forces, but start working with just one or two atoms of gold, and the metal takes on a different personality. 

“If you want to make devices smaller, then you have to understand how the material is going to behave when it gets smaller,” says Jason Armstrong Ph.D., a faculty member in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the University at Buffalo. 

With help from a $50,000 investment from the SUNY Technology Accelerator Fund (TAF), Armstrong and an industry partner, Precision Scientific Instruments (PSi), are completing a commercial prototype of a measurement system that works on the atomic scale. This disruptive technology can form materials and devices as small as a single atom, and then measure their properties with a very high degree of resolution. 

Armstrong and two colleagues, professors Harsh Deep Chopra and Susan Hua, invented the sub-nano metrology system, earning a U.S. patent in 2013. PSi, based in Buffalo, holds the exclusive license on this technology. “The invention is a comprehensive measurement system that PSi will market to scientists working on sub-nano materials used in electronics, medical devices, space and defense applications and other systems,” Armstrong says.   

The invention is capable of forming a bridge as small as a single atom between two electrodes. For example, it isolates a gold atom between two gold electrodes and then can measure the bridge’s physical properties, such as conductance. It can also measure the force required to deform the materials at the sub-nano scale. The system that the team will complete with help from the TAF award will be able to take measurements in a variety of environments, including extremely low temperature (cryogenic) and high vacuum. 

Armstrong and his colleagues invented the metrology system to aid their own investigations into atomic-scale materials and their physical properties. “Commercially available tools and instruments were not well suited for our studies,” Armstrong says. “The innovation and configuration of this technology gives us high stability and high resolution for our measurements.” 

This year’s TAF investment is the second that Armstrong and PSi’s president and chief executive officer, Gerry Murak, have received for the sub-nano metrology system. The first, in spring 2013, helped them complete a proof-of-concept. With help from the new TAF investment, they will create a version of the technology that is ready to go to market in 2015. A private investor is matching the TAF investment with another $50,000 to complete this segment of the project. 

Murak estimates that the product will bring PSi more than $30 million in revenue within the next five years. 

Explaining the need for his invention, Armstrong cites Moore’s Law, the observation that since the start of the computer age, the number of transistors built into integrated circuits has been doubling approximately every two years. To continue that trend, the computer industry must keep making transistors smaller, and with higher densities. According to Murak, the invention from the University at Buffalo will help researchers continue to “get more out of Moore’s Law.” 

Tags Tags: University at Buffalo , Technology Accelerator Fund

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