A rendering of the groundbreaking conductive material. Courtesy of the University of Pittsburgh

Since the dawn of the microchip era, electrical engineers have been working continuously to fit ever-expanding amounts of processing power into smaller and smaller packages. It’s a conundrum that University of Pittsburgh professor Susan Fullerton has spent her entire career pondering.

This week her efforts and innovations were rewarded.

Working out of Benedum Hall on Pitt’s campus, Fullerton and her team at the Swanson School of Engineering have synthesized a silicon-like material capable of transmitting electricity, and perhaps even digital data, over connections about as thick as a single molecule.

The innovation was honored with a $540,000 CAREER award from the National Science Foundation.

The award honors “early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization,” the Foundation says.

Fullerton noted that ultra-thin and ultra-efficient building materials will be a critical bridge technology for the development of many cutting-edge innovations coming from other corners of Pittsburgh’s research community. Widespread use of machine learning technologies, for example, will require response speed and energy efficiency that “no existing device technology can provide.”

While collaboration and further innovations are needed for Fullerton’s design to reach its full engineering potential, the support from the NSF is a strong vote of confidence in the underlying technology.

Beyond supporting the continued development of ultra-thin building materials, the money will also go toward creating several new student positions in the lab as well as supporting a variety of community outreach activities.

Fullerton will visit with K-12 students in underserved parts of the city to engage and educate them on the work of the Swanson School. She also plans on using the funds to donate a handful of high-powered microscopes to schools around the city. These microscopes can easily pair with a smartphone or tablet, allowing students to see high-quality video with molecular-level closeups.

“When the students get that portable microscope in their hands, they get really creative,” says Fullerton. “They look at the skin on their arm, the chewing gum out of their mouth or the details of the fabric on their clothing. It’s amazing to watch this relatively inexpensive tool spark curiosity in the materials that are all around them, and that’s the main goal.”

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.