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First-Year Students Explore Nanotechnology in MiNDS Lab

June 22, 2016

Minds Lab Freshman Solar Cell Project

Small steps: Freshmen learned about the MiNDS lab by making tiny electronic components for solar energy cells this spring.

Viewed through the laboratory’s sound-proof, amber-tinted windows, the students wearing long white gowns, latex gloves, and unflattering hairnets would fit nicely in a Hollywood science fiction thriller.

Inside the Micro-Nano-Device and Systems (MiNDS) lab, however, the students talk and laugh as they do anywhere else on campus, learning about technology that is as ubiquitous as it is hard to comprehend: nanotechnology.

“Access to the [MiNDS lab] was the main reason I came to Rose,” says freshman engineering physics major Audrey Brand as she exits the lab with a gaggle of her first-year classmates. “I really love nanotechnology.”

The MiNDS lab, also called the Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS) lab, is where students develop the tiny components found in many electronics today, including smart phones, medical sensors, and automobile safety devices. Brand and her classmates got their first taste of the lab through a new course offered this spring by the Department of Physics and Optical Engineering. The students used the class’s twice-weekly, one-hour lab sessions to make electronic components for solar cells.

“The solar cell was a simple process we could work on a little bit each week while getting the students to start thinking about concepts such as data analysis and process flows,” says Scott Kirkpatrick, an assistant professor of physics and optical engineering and co-instructor of the course with Assistant Professor Richard Liptak.

“The idea was to get them in [the lab], and get their feet wet,” Liptak says.

The 1,800-square-foot MiNDS lab is a designated clean room, meaning it must be temperature and humidity controlled, and protected as much as possible from impurities. Because the electronic components being made in the lab are so small, even a speck of dust can cause big problems.

Mi NDS_Lab _Freshman _Solar _Cell _Project2

Keep it clean: The MiNDS lab is a designated clean room, where even a speck of dust can interfere with the delicate work taking place.

“The things they are making are smaller than the width of your hair,” Liptak explains as he enters the lab through a dust-removing vacuum chamber. “When you are making these things, you can’t have any contamination at all.”

Sophisticated MiNDS technology is rarely available to college undergraduates, let alone freshmen. Equipment in Rose-Hulman’s lab includes a scanning electron microscope, an atomic force microscope, a silicon etching system, oxidation furnace, a physical vapor deposition (PVD) system, a plasma asher, and more.

“We have some really cool equipment on campus, and we want [students] to know it is there for them to use,” Kirkpatrick says. For students aiming for careers in the growing field of nanotechnology, experience using the devices is certainly a plus.

“Companies know they don’t have to teach our students how to work in a [MiNDS] lab,” Liptak says.

For Brand and her classmates, working in the MiNDS lab is indeed a rare and valuable experience.

“Working in the lab makes you feel like you’re an engineer,” says Brennan Santaniello, a chemical engineering and math major who also took the new class this spring. “After a week of math and lectures, working in there is a lot of fun.”