NSERC grant helps silicon research

Jun 26, 2003, vol. 27, no. 5
By Carol Thorbes



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Mike Thewalt (left) wants to take silicon - a material that reigns supreme in the semiconductor world - to new heights of perfection.

The Simon Fraser University physicist is not sure where pushing the boundaries of this element, which has already revolutionized electronic technology, will take him.

However, Thewalt now has a sizeable, annual operating grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) for the next five years to fund his exploration.

The $102,000 annual award is the largest grant to a SFU researcher in the most recent round of NSERC discovery grant funding.

What really delights Thewalt is that it will finance the “most significant work I have done in my career” and that the funding is for pure, not immediately applicable, research.

“There is a danger for people working in areas such as semiconductor physics, with such wide and profound applications, that all funded research in the area has to be seen to have immediate applications, or at least to belong to a current trend. This is the way things tend to work in the United States. Happily, my success shows that this is not the case here,” offers Thewalt, the past-president of the Canadian Association of Physicists.

Silicon technology is the heart of all computer chips, communications devices and consumer electronics.

It has enabled previously inconceivable miniaturization of electronic circuitry, increased speed of computations and reduced production costs.

Thewalt will use his discovery grant and a one-time NSERC equipment grant ($92,000) to construct a unique, new spectrometer.

It will enable him to analyse the spectrum of light emitted by synthetically manipulated silicon.

Because it is isotopically pure it holds the promise of out-performing conventional, isotopically mixed silicon, obtained from natural sources, such as sand.

Isotopes are variations of an element which have the same chemical properties, but different atomic masses, caused by different numbers of neutrons in the atomic nucleus.

Until now isotopically mixed silicon has been the basis of all silicon studies and devices.

Thewalt's work could lead to the discovery of a whole new array of electronic feats for silicon.

“The original investigators of silicon and other semiconductors did not have any of today's applications in mind before the accidental discovery of the transistor. It was just fundamental research, at the time,” reflects Thewalt.

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