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Meet student researchers advancing batteries, semiconductors and additive manufacturing

by | Nov 6, 2023 | Features, Students

Jacob Burrows, an electrical engineering senior, prepares a semiconductor material sample in the lab of Nick Rolston, an assistant professor of electrical engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University. Burrows is a student in the Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative program working to improve semiconductor performance and longevity. He is one of many student researchers helping to solve real-world problems with hands-on research. Photographer: Erika Gronek/ASU

This article is the first in a two-part series highlighting student researchers and faculty mentors presenting at the Fall 2023 Fulton Forge Student Research Expo on Friday, Nov. 17. Read part two. Learn more about the expo.

Improving microelectronics performance and longevity, simulating semiconductor materials at the nanoscale, charging batteries with movement and using vibrations to improve metal 3D printing are several of the ways Arizona State University students are addressing real-world challenges through hands-on research.

Undergraduate and graduate students in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU have several opportunities to apply their knowledge outside of the classroom through research. By working on use-inspired investigations with Fulton Schools faculty mentors, students practice bold thinking to solve problems in the areas of data science, education, energy, health, security, semiconductor manufacturing and sustainability.

The Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative, or FURI, and the Master’s Opportunity for Research in Engineering, or MORE, programs give participants valuable experiences in which they conceptualize ideas, develop plans and investigate their research questions over a semester.

Students participating in the Grand Challenges Scholars Program, or GCSP, can apply for additional funding to conduct research through the GCSP research stipend program. Conducting research is part of a GCSP student’s rigorous competency requirements designed to prepare them to solve complex global societal challenges.

These programs enhance students’ independent thinking and problem-solving skills and prepare them to solve problems in their communities in innovative ways. The technical skills they gain beyond what they learn in their degree programs better prepare them for industry careers and pursuing advanced degrees.

Each semester, students who participate in FURI, MORE and the GCSP research stipend program are invited to present their findings at a poster session. Formerly known as the FURI Symposium, the Fulton Forge Student Research Expo is the culmination of the students’ hard work to forge meaningful research paths and connections to make an impact. Learn about four students who are participating in the Fall 2023 Fulton Forge Student Research Expo. Meet them and more than 70 other student investigators at the event, which is open to the public, on Friday, Nov. 17, from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Student Pavilion on the ASU Tempe campus.

Electrical engineering major Jacob Burrows works on a FURI research project to improve semiconductor performance and longevity.

Photographer: Erika Gronek/ASU

Jacob Burrows

Electrical engineering senior Jacob Burrows is investigating how open-air plasma technology can reduce metal oxidation, which negatively affects performance and longevity when it is present on semiconductor devices’ printed circuit boards. He has been working on this FURI research project under the mentorship of Nick Rolston, an assistant professor of electrical engineering, in the summer and fall of 2023 and was sponsored by the semiconductor foundry TSMC. Sponsorship provides additional funding for undergraduate students to conduct exceptional semiconductor-related research.

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Why did you choose the project you’re working on?

Ever since my early academic exposure to electrical engineering, the intricacies of semiconductor manufacturing piqued my interest. The ability of these tiny components to power entire devices and systems seemed almost magical, driving my curiosity to understand the behind-the-scenes processes.

In the electrical engineering curriculum, we delve into the fundamental principles behind semiconductors, their properties and their roles in electronic devices. However, the comprehensive understanding of semiconductor manufacturing processes, from wafer fabrication to packaging, is often explored in specialized courses or through self-directed learning. My interest in the manufacturing aspect is a supplementary deep dive, building upon the foundational knowledge from my major.

How will your engineering research project impact the world?

Traditionally, semiconductor devices and printed circuit boards suffer from the gradual degradation of their metal components, primarily due to oxidation. This oxidation can lead to reduced performance, increased energy consumption and shortened device life span. By researching technologies that mitigate metal oxidation, we aim to enhance the overall efficiency and longevity of these devices, making them more sustainable and reducing electronic waste over time.

Reducing metal oxidation primarily preserves the integrity and efficiency of the metal components within semiconductor devices and printed circuit boards. Oxidation can lead to the formation of non-conductive layers on metal surfaces, which can impede electronic signals, reduce energy efficiency and even cause device failures. By curbing this oxidation, devices can maintain optimal performance levels for more extended periods, ensuring that they function as intended and don’t require frequent replacements or repairs.

Have there been any surprises in your research?

One major surprise was understanding the intricacies and nuances of the X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy, or XPS, tool. XPS has been particularly central to our testing processes. The XPS tool allows us to analyze the surface chemistry of the semiconductors by detecting the energy and number of electrons that escape from the top layers of the material when they are exposed to X-rays. This provides invaluable insight into the composition and electronic state of the materials we are examining. Additionally, we use multimeters for basic diagnostic tasks, like measuring various electrical properties such as voltage, current and resistance. A significant part of our research also involves setting up and optimizing the plasma machine for our open-air plasma experiments.

How do you see this experience helping your career?

While my aspirations may evolve with time and experience, I currently aim to work in semiconductor manufacturing or design, particularly in roles that bridge the gap between research and commercial production. In the long run, I envision myself leading research and development teams to develop next-generation semiconductor technologies, fostering innovation that can propel the electronics industry forward and make a positive impact on society. Conducting this research has been a treasure trove of experience and skill acquisition, specifically my technical proficiency, problem-solving, project management, collaboration and innovation skills.

What is the best advice you’ve gotten from your faculty mentor?

During the early stages of my research, I was working on optimizing the parameters for our open-air plasma technology. One particular experiment involved using a specific combination of power levels and exposure times to enhance the quality of the semiconductor surface. However, when the actual experiment was conducted, not only did it not yield the expected improvements, but it also degraded the semiconductor metal surface. At first, I was disheartened, feeling like I had wasted precious time and resources. However, recalling my faculty mentor’s advice that “no experiment is a failure,” I began to analyze the results more critically. While the initial objective was not met, the unexpected outcome provided valuable insights into the limitations of the technology under certain conditions. This “failure” proved instrumental in redefining our approach and parameters for subsequent experiments, ensuring that we avoided similar pitfalls.

Why should other students get involved in FURI?

Engaging with FURI offers students unparalleled access to a vibrant community of researchers and industry experts, facilitating meaningful networking opportunities. But more than that, FURI provides a hands-on experience that deepens one’s comprehension of their chosen field.

Learn more about Jacob Burrows’ Summer and Fall 2023 FURI projects.

Mechanical engineering major Tyler Norkus works on a FURI project to advance semiconductor knowledge by simulating what happens to different materials during the manufacturing of semiconductor devices at very small scales.

Photographer: Erika Gronek/ASU

Tyler Norkus

Mechanical engineering senior Tyler Norkus is advancing microelectronics knowledge by simulating what happens to different materials during the manufacturing of semiconductor devices at very small scales — particularly at the nanoscale, which deals with objects tens of thousands of times smaller than the thickness of a sheet of paper. This information can help researchers create better tools to support semiconductor manufacturing. Norkus has been working on this area of research for a year. His work under the mentorship of Masoud Yekani Fard, an assistant teaching professor specializing in mechanical and aerospace engineering, earned Norkus the opportunity to present his research at the American Society of Mechanical Engineers International Mechanical Engineering Congress & Exposition in early November.

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What made you want to get involved in FURI? Why did you choose the project you’re working on?

I’ve wanted to get involved with FURI ever since I started as a first-year student at ASU; it sounded like a great program to be in, and I wanted to get as much experience as I could while I was in college. I wanted to learn what academic research was like, so when Professor Fard mentioned that he was looking for students to help with research, I decided to look into it. Professor Fard’s research was interesting to me, so after meeting with him and discussing the project, I decided to work with him and start research.

How will your engineering research project impact the world?

My research project focuses on ways to measure novel materials on the micro- and nanoscale, which is particularly relevant to industries that produce high-precision parts and nanocomposites such as semiconductor manufacturing. Technology is becoming more and more advanced in the modern age, and precise and accurate measuring tools are needed to advance our knowledge and productivity as we move toward increasingly complex products and materials.

How do you see this experience helping with your career or advanced degree goals?

My experience with undergraduate research and with FURI has given me a wealth of experience and knowledge that goes far beyond what my classes offer. I believe that experience will help me push my education further and give me more career options in my field of interest as well as give me skills that I can use wherever I end up in the future.

What is the best advice you’ve gotten from your faculty mentor?

The best advice that my faculty mentor has given me is not to settle for the easiest or most convenient path available. He has encouraged me to go further and achieve more than I ever would have done by myself, and he has broadened my horizons simply by challenging me to think bigger.

Why should other students get involved in this program?

FURI is an amazing opportunity for any ASU student, and it gives you the chance to step out of the controlled environment of the classroom and into academia, where you need to learn how to apply your knowledge and think in novel ways. I’ve learned about topics and techniques that my classes would never have covered, and I believe that I am a much more well-rounded student as a result.

Learn about Tyler Norkus’ Fall 2023 FURI project.

Engineering major Gwen Eging is working on a FURI research project to design batteries that are charged by movement for applications such as wearables.

Photographer: Erika Gronek/ASU

Gwen Eging

Gwen Eging, a sophomore transfer student majoring in engineering with a concentration in robotics, is participating in FURI under the mentorship of Ayan Mallik, an assistant professor of engineering. In her research, Eging is exploring the development and optimization of kinetically charged batteries, which use movement to gain an electrical charge, for use in a wide range of applications from prosthetic devices to smartphones.

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What made you want to get involved in FURI? 

During my first semester at ASU, I was in Professor Mallik’s Electrical Engineering Fundamentals class. It was in that class that I learned about FURI from him and a classmate, both of whom encouraged me to participate in the program. I was uncertain about it because I had just started my ASU career, and my technical knowledge I felt was behind my peers’. I jotted down a note in the margin of my notebook in one of [Professor Mallik’s] lectures about amplifying voltage and kinetically charged batteries. I told myself that come spring if he had not signed on as a mentor to anyone else’s FURI project, I would ask him to be my mentor. Fast forward to the spring semester and he indeed had not agreed to mentor any undergraduate students for the upcoming fall. I proposed my idea, and he told me he had not worked in that space before but would be willing to mentor me in the fall semester.

How will your engineering research project impact the world?

Through mass social media consumption, I learned that prosthetics can die at inopportune moments throughout the day, leaving the user stuck. By utilizing kinetically charged batteries the user could prolong the device’s life to last the whole day. Kinetically charged battery amplification and optimization is not just limited to prosthetic devices — it has the potential to be used in communication devices, GPS devices, insulin pumps, heart monitors and even your smartphone. This will not replace charging the device entirely but should be able to prolong the use of that single tethered charge.

How do you see this experience helping with your career or advanced degree goals?

My career goal is to design and create robotic medical assistive devices that combine a splash of fashion with robotics. As part of this objective, I am focused on optimizing the power supply of devices because of the positive impact that would have on user experience and quality of life. Additionally, I seek out supplemental projects in fields I have little to no knowledge of but that can enhance my degree path by aligning with my career goals. It offers a venue and the motivation to learn the material and really expand my knowledge, making me a better engineer.

What is the best advice you’ve gotten from your faculty mentor?

The best advice given to me by my mentor is not anything he said — it is what he has done. Although the field of kinetically charged batteries falls outside of his active research areas, he did not turn me away when I proposed it as my FURI topic. He listened to my ideas and then guided me through the project’s different steps and processes. I have learned a great deal from this approach and plan to use it in other areas of my life.

Why should other students get involved in FURI?

FURI gives you the opportunity to get hands-on lab and research experience while pursuing a topic of interest that may not fall within the scope of your classes. Not many undergraduate students get the opportunity to pursue their own research. Thus, it is a valuable experience for any college student.

Learn about Gwen Eging’s Fall 2023 FURI project.

Manufacturing engineering graduate student Mohammed Bawareth works on a MORE research project to advance the understanding of how an additive manufacturing technology that uses sound vibrations can improve the energy efficiency of metal 3D printing.

Photographer: Erika Gronek/ASU

Mohammed Bawareth

Mohammed Bawareth is a manufacturing engineering graduate student participating in the MORE program. Working with Keng Hsu, an associate professor of manufacturing engineering, Bawareth is advancing the understanding of how an additive manufacturing technology that uses vibrations at frequencies higher than the human ability to hear can improve the energy efficiency of metal 3D printing. He was highly involved in research during his mechanical engineering undergraduate studies at ASU through the FURI and Summer Research Initiative programs and has used his work through MORE to support his master’s degree thesis.

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What made you want to get involved in research?

My passion for innovation and discovery drives me to seek a fulfilling career in the field of research and development. I desire to be part of a team that explores uncharted territories, uncovers new knowledge and creates groundbreaking solutions to complex problems. My goal is to make a meaningful contribution to society by expanding the frontiers of science and technology and pushing the limits of what is possible.

How will your engineering research project impact the world?

Resonant-assisted deposition, or RAD, is an emerging metal additive manufacturing technology that shapes and joins metal wire to form 3D objects. Fundamentally, the physics of this solid-state technique utilizes mechanical energy in the form of small-frequency oscillatory strains to soften metals for forming and joining voxels into 3D parts line by line and layer by layer. The unique nature of using this form of mechanical energy enables the RAD technique to be more than 100 times more energy efficient in comparison with existing metal 3D printing technologies (300-watt power consumption at the machine level).

One of my favorite selling points of my project is the potential for manufacturing in outer space, which could be a game changer. Currently, metal production in space is impossible for many reasons. However, this technology solves two significant challenges associated with space manufacturing. First, it consumes 100 times less energy than other metal additive manufacturing techniques. Secondly, it has the ability to deform and diffuse solid-state metal, unlike other metal additive manufacturing techniques that require powder, which is difficult to control in space.

Beyond applications, this technology would lead to a better fundamental understanding of ultrasound’s effect on metal or other materials when the effect is combined with another type of energy source such as mechanical or thermal.

Have there been any surprises in your research?

My current research has brought many surprises my way. However, the biggest surprise has been my mentor, Professor Keng Hsu. He possesses a remarkable talent for communicating fundamental concepts implicitly, effortlessly translating high-level language intended for users into low-level language suitable for machines. He provides technical training with patience, handles difficult problems and people with ease and offers moral support to all members of his team.

What is the best advice you’ve gotten from your faculty mentor?

My mentor keeps emphasizing the importance of cultivating the ability to translate user-oriented high-level language to machine-oriented low-level language to lead a meaningful research and development career.

How do you see this experience helping with your advanced degree and career goals?

This experience supports my master’s degree thesis. In the future, it will lead to a new research and development endeavor; specifically, I am planning to join a doctoral degree program here at ASU with Professor Keng Hsu’s team.

What advice do you have for other students who might be interested in the MORE program or research in general?

You need to find your “why” and start with your needs.

Learn about Mohammed Bawareth’s Fall 2023 MORE project.

About The Author

Monique Clement

Monique Clement is a lead communications specialist for the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. She earned her BA in journalism from Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. For seven years before joining the Fulton Schools communications team, she worked as an editor and journalist in engineering trade media covering the embedded systems industry. Media contact: [email protected] | 480-727-1958 | Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

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