Atomic-level electronics: believing leads to accomplishing

Kerry Hipps and his students are atomic-level electricians.

They take detailed pictures of molecules, then measure electron flow at the submolecular level. They are looking “to see how electrons move through different parts of single molecules.” These researchers are exploiting the fact that material properties change significantly at the molecular level, such that new and surprising materials can result.

His address will be on the shapes and electronic properties of single molecules.

Country scientist

After receiving a Ph.D. in chemical physics from WSU in 1976, Hipps spent two years as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan. Then a position opened up at WSU.

“I chose to return to WSU because it is one of the few places where you can do advanced scientific work and live in a rural area,” said Hipps. “You can conduct world-class research, and still own horses and dogs and target practice in your backyard.”

Nanoscale research

His world-class research involves the submicroscopic.

“In our everyday experience, the properties of a materials don’t depend much on size,” says Hipps. “Whether you study a ton or piece the size of a grain of sand, you come to basically the same conclusions. But with material as small as one molecule, about one billionth of a meter (a nanometer) in length, the whole world turns over,” he declares. “Material exhibits new and exciting properties that are driving a revolution called nanotechnology.”

Hipps and his students are finding that they can design new electronic devices by combining atoms into complex molecules — “from the bottom up” design. Today’s electronics rely on a “top down” approach — making the same components ever smaller. “Unfortunately, we are near the scale where this no longer works.”

A future application could be single-molecule processors. Though such application are a ways off, Hipps and his students are doing smaller scale applications now — measuring properties on the atomic scale and hooking different atoms together to get molecules with designed electrical pathways. They are creating new materials and developing the tools to understand them.

Hipps remembers IBM saying in 1979 that scanning tunneling microscopy (STM), a tool he uses in his research, was impossible. Then in 1985, someone else at IBM showed that it could be done. Of this pioneer, Hipps said, “the only thing new he brought to the project was believing it could be done.”

That is the kind of confidence that Hipps wants to bring to students, “because once they believe they can do something, they are most of the way to accomplishing it,” he asserts.

As an example of this scientific can-do attitude, Hipps worked with two of his undergraduate students in 1990 to build WSU’s first STM. They did it with only $2,000, used parts from old equipment, a used computer, and they wrote the software.

Committed to students

By working with students and doing research, Hipps is fulfilling two of what he calls the “three key missions of a land grant university.” The third is outreach to the community, which he does by serving on grant review panels, reviewing journal articles, and helping with local science fairs. He also is a 4-H horsemanship adviser.

Besides involving students in research, Hipps teaches physical chemistry to graduate students, the freshman honors course in chemistry, and materials science courses. He also has undergraduate students working in his labs.

“None of this current research would have been done without those students,” he declares. He is also deeply grateful to his wife and colleague, chemistry professor Ursula Mazur.

Esteemed colleague

“His students are very lucky to have someone so talented yet concerned for their development,” said friend Tom Dickinson, a professor of physics and materials sciences.

Dickinson anticipates a solid address from Hipps on April 23. “In terms of a presentation, I will guarantee a real winner,” he says.

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