Air Force awards FIU $4.2 million to research vacuum nanoelectronics for advanced communication systems

The Air Force Office of Scientific Research has awarded FIU a $4.2 million grant to research vacuum nanoelectronics and generate a new technology called Nanoscale Vacuum Field Effect.


The Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) has awarded FIU a $4.2 million grant to research vacuum nanoelectronics and generate a new technology called Nanoscale Vacuum Field Effect (VFETs). VFETs will help improve radar signal quality and satellite-communication systems and provide higher data speeds, by using “vacuum” tubes instead of transistors for the transportation of electrical power.

Early electronics, like vintage radios, used vacuum tubes. These resembled a type of light bulb and were used to amplify and switch electrical signals. In recent decades, vacuum tubes faced stiff competition from semiconductor devices used to amplify electrical power. Semiconductors have lower fabrication costs, less energy consumption and a longer life span. Researchers have continued testing and enhancing vacuum tube properties throughout the years to discover new processing approaches to use in the semiconductor industry.

Dimitris Pavlidis, principal investigator and director of emerging research programs for FIU’s College of Engineering & Computing, along with researchers from other institutions across the nation, will, together, be developing nanoscale materials and devices, crucial for high-speed ground-based and satellite-communication systems. Nanoscale is a dimensional range of nanometers. To better understand how small a nanometer is, a single strand of hair is 100,000 nanometers.

“This project will contribute to gaining crucial knowledge in vacuum nanoelectronics while applying it to novel wireless communication devices,” Pavlidis said. “I am thrilled to collaborate with experts in the field of nanoelectronics from top universities through this grant.”

The creation of vacuum tubes at a nanoscale level can provide high frequency and speed output, while also being cost-effective, light and stable in harsh environments, including high temperatures and radiation. Vacuum tubes can tolerate severe environments better than transistors, making them ideal for the U.S. Department of Defense, which needs electronics that can withstand such harsh environments. The technology can also be applied to space missions, major thunderstorms or a nuclear environment. Ultimately, VFETs will benefit next generation military systems and commercial devices, including cell phones.

The grant also opens new opportunities to current FIU electrical engineering students who are specializing in the areas of nanotechnology and communication. Pavlidis looks to build collaboration between FIU students and graduate students from the participating universities.

“Students will have the opportunity to learn fundamentals, but also apply them to practical components and study their experimental characteristics,” Pavlidis said. “The United States has been a leader in vacuum technology and, with this grant, we will develop the next generation workforce for this area.”

The co-principal investigators of the grant are Enrico Bellotti, professor from Boston University; Samuel Graham, chair and professor for Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology; Saeed Mohammadi, professor from Purdue University; Siddharth Rajan, professor from The Ohio State University; and Joan Redwing, professor from Pennsylvania State University. The AFOSR grant is for four years.

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