Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Physics Lab Tour at The University of Arkansas

Ph.D. candidate Robert Sleezer

                                                                                                      The closest most of us will ever get to the inside of a physics research lab is by watching episodes of the über-popular “Big Bang Theory.”  Real life Ph.D. candidate Robert Sleezer was kind enough to show me around the University of Arkansas physics lab where he spends the better part of his days. Sleezer works in Greg Salamo’s research group, which “does an awful lot of things,” he said. The group of about 20 people conducts research that includes optics work (“lasers and crap,”) electron microscopy, growth of crystals and nanomaterials, and biological research.

   One monstrous piece of equipment was located in a clean room labeled “Molecular Beam Epitaxy.” Everyone had to put on lab coats, hair nets, and booties upon entry. The room held a vacuum chamber that contains fewer “atoms per volume than in outer space,” explained Sleezer. The machinery allows the operator to build “layer cake” out of crystals, or build semiconductors using very pure elements with ridiculous precision. The materials are assembled, quite literally, “one atomic layer at a time,” said Sleezer. The highly customized materials that can be made using this technology may be worthy of publication, or they could even be of potential interest to companies that are looking for the next breakthrough in electronics. And according to the science-minded Sleezer, it is often preferential to publish a paper on an exciting new product rather than sell the technology to a company.
   One of the lab’s main goals includes trying to find materials “other than silicone” to make parts for computers. There are limitations of silicone-based parts that make it challenging to build electronic components smaller, faster, and that use less energy.
   The five-million-dollar (give or take a few dollars) Titan transmission electron microscope (part of the University of Arkansas Electron Optics Facility supported by the National Science Foundation) that Sleezer uses looks a bit like a large periscope from the future. This microscope is so sensitive that a special “minimally-vibrating” building was constructed on the campus to house it. The scope can be used to take pictures of atoms “using the wave nature of electrons,” said Sleezer. Photos of the incredibly tiny crystal structures can be very helpful in determining if the team is on to a hot new product, or not.
   When asked if he likes his work, Sleezer replied, “Who wouldn’t?”
Graduate students Chen Li, P.C. Grant, and Sleezer

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