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UNM wins $7M Air Force lab contract


Zhaobing Tian, left, and Sen Mathews work on the UNM Center for High Technology Materials molecular beam epitaxy machine, which can build semiconductor nanocrystals up one atom at a time. (COURTESY OF UNM)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — University of New Mexico engineers will soon be studying, designing and even building next-generation materials and devices for electronics in space.

UNM’s School of Engineering won a $7 million, five-year contract from the Air Force Research Laboratory to help develop alternative semiconductor materials for electronics that may perform better than today’s products in harsh conditions.

It’s part of an AFRL project to build faster, and possibly more robust, electrical devices for satellites, said Jesse Mee, the lab’s program manager in Albuquerque for space technology and point man on the UNM contract.

“As we look at the next generation of electronics in spacecraft, we need to study new materials and how well they’ll perform in a space environment,” Mee said. “We also need to develop systems that can be used to fabricate those materials into devices.”

AFRL chose UNM in a national competition for the contract, given the unique capabilities at the school’s Center for High Technology Materials. The center can build up semiconductor nanocrystals one atom at a time to develop new materials, thanks to a $1.5 million molecular beam epitaxy machine UNM acquired in 2010. It is one of the only two universities in the U.S. with such nanoscale design capabilities.

That, plus the center’s work with metal organic chemical vapors when designing materials, gives UNM a distinct advantage over other universities, Mee said.

“It’s one of the largest contracts UNM’s School of Engineering has gotten,” UNM electrical and computer engineering professor Ganesh Balakrishnan said. “Engineers from many disciplines will be involved.”

UNM will study advanced semiconductor elements, such as antimonide or gallium arsenide and nitride, as alternatives to silicon to create new foundations for electronic devices. Those materials may conduct electricity faster than silicon, while offering better resistance to radiation and other adverse conditions in space, Mee said.

UNM will do the basic groundwork to test and qualify materials for space applications, and then design processes to build devices with them, said Christos Christodoulou, an electrical and computer engineering professor and associate dean for research at UNM’s School of Engineering.

“These are very complex materials,” Christodoulou said. “We have to start from scratch on the design, modeling and fabrication processes, and study their resistance and operating capacity in space conditions. The goal is to produce future space electronics that can go into satellites.”

The project could also help UNM develop a new, online master’s program in space electronics. Some courses and individually tailored studies are now available, “but this will help us build a specialized program available to all students,” Christodoulou said.


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