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Spring 2000

Speed Demon
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"IBM promised Jim hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of lasers and fancy equipment to do gas phase work, presumably on clusters," Saykally says. "But they had problems getting his lab renovated and getting some aspects of the lab approved by the safety people. So he had all this equipment sitting out in the hall, and he was getting angry and frustrated and talking about opening an ice cream store in Waco. But IBM emphasizes big, important problems in industry and Jim learned that the big, important problem of the time was how to make silicon and germanium nanostructures and nanowires. And Jim just got out a bunch of beakers, read the literature and figured out how to solve the big problem of the day, all the time while waiting for his physical chemistry lab to come through. And he did it ahead of all the top people in the field. Just like that. He never did uncrate his lasers."

The denouement to the story was twofold: Not only did it get Heath an offer at UCLA, where he arrived in early 1994, but it convinced him that computers and other electronic devices could be synthesized chemically - from the bottom up - rather than by etching the necessary circuits out of slabs of silicon, which is how chips are made today.

"Today, you take a material and you whittle away almost all of it using lithography," explains Heath. "It's like sculpting. You come with a chisel and you take away all the stuff you don't want. I started thinking about how to build a computer by bringing small amounts of stuff together, molecules at a time. And I realized there's no reason why it can't work."

Now, says Heath, "we work in nano," giving it a kind of cowboy-like allure. And he has generated a host of research projects based on this infinitesimal scale of chemistry. He is working, for instance, on the study of quantum dots, which Heath calls artificial atoms or nanoparticles - tiny chunks of perhaps a thousand atoms of a single element. Heath and his colleagues have made artificial solids out of these artificial atoms, and they have learned to precisely control the properties of these solids, turning them effortlessly from insulators to semiconductors to superconductors. There are all kinds of "gee-whiz things" one could do with such artificial solids, says Heath, his favorite being the synthesis of sensors that would react to, say, a single photon of light by changing from an insulator to a semiconductor or even a superconductor. He seems most enamored, however, with the pure science promise of the work: "You can really go to your favorite solid-state theory and from first principles design a solid that tests the theory. And so we can design solids that we can flip between metals and insulators and other exotic phases, even superconductors. This is a very, very powerful technology and it's an area that we invented and have taken pretty far."

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