$431,000 NSF Grant Funds Atomic-Level Exploration of Semiconductors

Posted on December 12, 2012

Dr. Jennifer Aitken, associate professor of chemistry, knows semiconductors at their atomic level. Her studies of semiconductor compounds used in everything from solar cells to imaging equipment examine exactly how atoms are arranged.

This research has attracted a $431,000, three-year grant from the National Science Foundation.

“I can use X-ray diffraction to see where the atoms actually are located in a structure,” Aitken said. “You’re looking at something nobody has looked at before.”

Semiconductors, which essentially replaced the once-ubiquitous vacuum tube, can be formed from many different combinations, which create new materials.

Once Aitken has established a new compound, creativity meets science. “You can be working with known materials and can substitute other substances to maximize the properties you want,” said Aitken, who has been surprised by some of her discoveries.

“I initially thought what I was introducing would have interesting magnetic properties—but it didn’t,” said Aitken, who works with compounds of copper indium selenide. “It turned out to be even more interesting. I improved the thermoelectric properties and performance by just putting a little manganese into the structure.”

Aitken’s research doesn’t stop with chemical wizardry. “I have to ask, ‘Why did this happen? Why didn’t I get the magnetic properties I was hoping for? Where is the magnesium even appearing in the crystal lattice? If we can understand this, it’s a concept that can be used with other related materials to improve their properties, too.”

The scientific discovery possible through this project—Optical, Electrical and Magnetic Properties of Multi-Cation Diamond-Like Semiconductors: Intricate Semiconductor Systems for Physical Property Tuning—is only one of Aitken’s goals. Aitken, who initiated Duquesne’s award-winning Project SEED program, has made a point to provide graduate and undergraduate students, even high schoolers, opportunities to contribute.

“It’s important that we’re educating the next generation of scientists,” Aitken said.

“In addition to her cutting-edge research in developing novel semiconductors, Dr. Aitken’s extraordinary ability to mentor undergraduate and graduate students in their research has had a profound effect upon the quality of our chemistry program in the Bayer School,” said Dean David Seybert.

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