Columbia’s new nanocenter built
on partnerships with IBM, Lucent

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NEW YORK, Aug. 1, 2002 — James Yardley, managing director of Columbia University’s new nanocenter, one of six facilities funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), has spent most of his career in industrial research, not academia.

In fact, the chemical engineer came out of retirement in 1999 to try his hand teaching at Columbia after running part of Allied Signal’s corporate labs in Morristown, N.J., for many years.

Today, he’s guiding Columbia’s Center for Electron Transport in Molecular Nanostructures with Ronald Breslow, a National Medal of Science winner and a pioneer in biomimetic chemistry, and Nobel winning physicist Horst Stormer, as scientific directors.

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A close research relationship with IBM and Lucent’s Bell Labs, both less than an hour from the university, was integral to the plan Columbia pitched to the NSF. “We promised a real-life, active collaboration,” said Yardley.

IBM and Bell Labs were actively involved in the plan from the start. Cherie Kagan, a researcher in the organic electronics group at IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., and Christian Kloc, a Bell Labs chemist in Murray Hill, N.J., worked closely with Columbia colleagues to finalize the plan.

In September 2001, the NSF awarded Columbia $10.8 million over five years. The grant will support a multidisciplinary group of 16 researchers working to understand how electrons move through molecules and nanomaterials.

According to NSF spokeswoman Amber Jones, funding such a collaboration is a way to leverage the government’s investment in nanotechnology research. “The center’s goal is to bring together different sectors, as well as different disciplines and institutions,” said Jones. That intersection should also help identify areas of research important to industry.

Jones noted that the initial funding might be extended for five more years, but that the ultimate goal for all the NSF-funded nanocenters is to become self-supporting through arrangements such as university/industry consortiums.

Part of the Columbia program is enabling four postdoctoral scientists to split their time between Columbia’s nanocenter and the two industrial partners. Two postdocs are working with IBM’s R&D headquarters in Westchester County and another two are at Bell Labs in New Jersey

Bell Lab’s Kloc is working with Stormer’s postdoc, Jochen Ulrich, on single crystals of organic semiconductors. Kloc is growing the crystal and Ulrich is measuring the crystal’s physical and electrical properties. Bell Lab’s physicist Robert Willett — once a graduate student with Columbia’s Stormer — is working with another of the Nobel laureate’s postdocs, Anat Hatzor, on electron transport in individual molecules.

“What’s most exciting and unique about our collaboration is that people from such different disciplines — organic chemistry, physics, materials science — are working on the same problems together,” said Kloc. “I think we’re already learning a great deal from each other.”

IBM’s Kagan is working with Columbia’s Liwei Chen on the electrical properties of organic molecules that could function as thin film transistors for flexible displays. Xiaodong Cui is helping Phaedon Avouris, IBM’s manager of nanoscale science, examine the electronic characteristics of carbon nanotubes. One area of Cui’s inquiry is looking at the photovoltaic properties of nanotubes.

Close contact between universities and high-tech companies is nothing new, and many academic researchers have industry experience and contacts. Indeed, Yardley noted that 40 percent of Columbia’s nanocenter faculty have at one time or another worked in industry, either at IBM, Bell Labs or other companies.

But as Avouris explains, universities often have more human talent than equipment resources, while corporate research centers like IBM have the research hardware but lack manpower. Columbia’s plan, said Yardley, addresses these imbalances by sharing human expertise in exchange for access to the front lines of corporate science.

Working with IBM and Lucent is intended to help keep Columbia’s research in tune with the demands of the market. Access to IBM and Lucent fabrication facilities and institutional expertise should also allow Columbia scientists to do more, faster than they could on their own.

While the collaboration focuses on the science of charge transport at the nanoscale, this could have important technological implications, noted IBM’s Kagan. “There are many fundamental questions we need to answer about charge transport in molecules and nanoscale devices,” she said.

Commercializing molecular electronic or organic semiconductor devices will greatly depend on gaining a better understanding of the basic behavior of these new materials, she said.

According to all the parties, intellectual property or patents that may spring from the collaborative investigations will belong to the people and institutions that generate them. While that may seem like something of a legal quagmire, Yardley and Avouris both said lawyers for all sides have clearly defined the IP terrain.

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