Carnegie Mellon researcher wins prestigious career award for NSF

April 03, 2007

PITTSBURGH--Carnegie Mellon University's C. Fred Higgs III has received the National Science Foundation's most prestigious award for new faculty members, the Faculty Early Career Development award.

Higgs, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon, will receive the five year $400,000 grant to develop sophisticated computer models that can predict wear problems on a variety of surfaces, including materials used in semiconductor and data storage devices, in addition to hip and knee replacements.

For example, surfaces under stress rub together causing friction. It is Higgs' job to find out how abrasive nanoparticles cause this friction, and surface wear, and what kind of detailed experiments and computational models are effective at predicting these tribological phenomena. The study of friction, lubrication and wear is called tribology.

"With the growth in computational power, we believe these types of tribology problems can be predicted and we can ultimately understand how nanoparticles wear away materials like on the surface of an artificial limb or the surface of integrated circuits used by chip manufacturers and the data storage industry." said Higgs.

Industry analysts report that the race to produce higher-performance integrated circuits is limited today by the cost of production and the challenges faced by the traditional paradigm of making components smaller and smaller. These components are fabricated using special optical methods called lithography, which only works when the surfaces are ultra-smooth. To get these surfaces smooth, chemical mechanical planarization (CMP), a nanoparticle-based polishing process that costs the semiconductor industry billions of dollars, is employed.

"My research could help eliminate costly material testing during CMP in the ongoing race to produce smaller and faster integrated circuits," said Higgs.

The NSF grant also will help Higgs expand an existing interdisciplinary tribology course by adding new lab experiences and projects at Carnegie Mellon and pre-college workshops at Westinghouse High School, an urban public school with a science and math academy.

"Hopefully, our work will motivate more underrepresented minority students to think about earning Ph.Ds in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics," Higgs said.
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Carnegie Mellon University

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