OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Nanotech ‘Beaver’ Fights On In Tiny New Form

04/24/2008

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The Oregon State University logo and “Beaver” trademark, which are often used in publications or seen flashing larger-than-life on an athletic scoreboard, now also exist in a much different form that’s rarely seen – and still not able to be seen, for that matter, without the tools of nanotechnology.

The images aren’t perfect and the artwork probably wouldn’t pass muster with the Office of University Marketing. But due to some tinkering by OSU physics students, the fighting Beaver has been embraced by the world of nanotechnology and exists as one of the smallest etchings of it that’s ever been done.

How small? Well, the tip of a ball point pin is about one millimeter wide. The tip used to create these images is about 100,000 times smaller than that, or the width of a single protein molecule.

The end result is so tiny it can’t be seen with any optical microscope. But viewed with the right kind of instruments, it’s clear that the Beaver is as angry as ever, fighting for victory.

“In the nanolithographic work we’re doing for carbon nanotube and graphene electronics experiments, we need to be able to draw and cut in very careful patterns,” said Jorg Bochterle, an OSU physics exchange student from Germany. “So we started drawing some recognizable patterns, including things like our initials, the university logo and the Beaver emblem. This was actually a very useful exercise.”

The “pen” used to draw these images is controlled by an atomic force microscope. The researchers program the machine to apply pressure to the tip and draw lines in precise configurations, down to the size of a single molecule. The incredibly sharp tip is made by a chemical etching process. The same tip that scratches the surface is used to produce the resulting art work by following the atomic contours, like a needle reading a vinyl record.

“The smallest size of modern electronics is about 100 nanometers, whereas we’re working at a scale about 10 times finer than that,” said Matt Leyden, an OSU doctoral student also involved in the studies. “Some of what we can produce might not be suitable to mass production, but it can allow creation of new prototypes and is good for research purposes.”

The underlying scientific research, according to Ethan Minot, an assistant professor of physics, relates to nanoelectronics experiments with graphene and carbon nanotubes. Graphene is a sheet of carbon that is only one atom thick, while a carbon nanotube is a cylinder made out of graphene. Electrical devices carved out of these materials have exceptional properties for biological sensing and may ultimately be used as medical devices to diagnose human disease.

As he continues to work with these instruments, Leyden said, he might move beyond the fighting Beaver and do a self portrait – albeit a tiny one, nothing too ostentatious. You could probably fit several million of them on the face of a dime.