Aug. 15, 2003 – Sensitive electrical measurements provide the underpinning for many nanotechnology discoveries, particularly in the areas of materials and nanoelectronics. They help academic and industrial scientists and engineers fully understand the electrical properties of new materials, and the electrical performance of new nanoelectronic devices and components.
That knowledge is imperative if the science and business communities hope to unravel the complexities of matter at the nanoscale and make reliable electronic devices based on nanomaterials.
For nanotechnology to progress, though, nano-technologists will need instrument suppliers to develop new techniques and equipment to support their cutting-edge research. Instrument designers, in turn, will benefit from researchers who can share insights into critical measurement problems.
For instance, nanomaterials can exhibit high levels of conductivity and nanoelectronic devices often operate at low levels of current. Consequently, the instruments used to measure these phenomena must be much more sensitive and precise. The measurement techniques and instruments also must minimize noise and other sources of error that interfere with the signal.
Historically, many scientific advances occur only after suitable investigative instruments become available. Today, tools such as the atomic force microscope and the scanning electron microscope help nanotech researchers visualize, resolve, and perform surface
characterization of nanoscale objects. The information obtained with these tools allows researchers to manipulate atoms and molecules to create new materials and structures. However, tools are needed to measure phenomena going on beneath the surfaces of nanomaterials.
The National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) is aware of the importance of these tools. In 2000, when President Clinton announced the formation of the NNI, a committee charged with outlining its goals recommended creating programs for the invention and development of new instruments for nanoscience. In 2002, the NNI included in its grand challenges a call for more sophisticated and standardized nanoscale instrumentation and metrology designed to provide higher performance and measurement efficiency at lower cost. It outlined instruments and tools for measurement, manipulation and analysis that will not only support current activity, but also take nanotechnology to the next level.
Some companies, government laboratories and universities are heeding this call by developing nanomanipulation systems, nanoassemblers and nanoprobes to advance the science. To be most effective, these new research tools and instruments must be easy to use and cost-effective. The importance of ease and cost will grow as industry employment grows.
Some of the present tools are very complex. There are just too many buttons to push. Data transfer mechanisms are tedious and can require extensive amounts of storage media. Graphical analysis takes too long. Programming steals time away from research. Department heads and managers who decide about equipment investments should examine these issues carefully, and compare instrument features before committing funds.
To advance the state of the art rapidly, researchers can’t be bogged down with programming chores and arcane details of instrument operation. User-friendly instruments are important, not only to researchers and technicians, but also to design engineers and manufacturing specialists who must take new discoveries and convert them into practical products. To meet this challenge, state-of-the-art electrical characterization systems must now be PC-based with the point-and-click, cut-and-paste, and drag-and-drop features of the Windows operating system. These system features make test setup, execution, and analysis more time efficient by shortening the learning curve.
However, meeting the grand challenge of sensitive, user-friendly measurements must be a cooperative effort between instrumentation suppliers and user organizations. Researchers need to communicate their electrical measurement needs fully to instrumentation suppliers, and provide some insight into possible future needs. In light of users’ scarce financial resources, instrumentation suppliers must not overlook the need for affordable designs. They must continue to innovate to support both emerging measurement needs and nanotechnology investment limitations.
By working with instrument suppliers, researchers in different disciplines can provide specialized knowledge of electrical measurement problems that are core issues in the development of novel materials and electrical components. By working with this new generation of nanotech researchers and technicians, suppliers of sensitive electrical measurement systems can apply multidisciplined knowledge and skills to create effective, economical designs.
Partnerships between research organizations and instrument manufacturers help speed up development of measurement solutions — solutions that allow individual researchers to innovate, create and accelerate the future of nanoscience. The number of new discoveries resulting from such cooperation in the past attests to the value of these partnerships.