Shrinking Materials

In the wireless world, smaller is better. "Everyone wants to get more things into and out of their cell phones. They want to store more information and have a million different functions. To do all that, you have to miniaturize," explains materials scientist Mike Lanagan.

But the researchers at Penn State's Center for Dielectric Studies (CDS), which Lanagan co-directs, don't directly make devices for cell phones. "As far as product development goes, we're at the bottom of the food chain," he says. "We develop the materials that go into the components that go into your cell phone."

Dielectric materials, which include everything from ceramics to plastics, can guide microwaves like an antenna and store a charge like a battery, properties that make them useful in myriad products.

The Center was recently awarded a state Ben Franklin Center of Excellence grant to conduct basic materials research that will primarily benefit Pennsylvania companies. Specifically, CDS is working with DuPont, in Towanda, PA, and Heraeus, Inc, in Conshohocken, PA on low-temperature, co-fired ceramics: in this case, tiny clay and plastic squares into which disks of metal have been embedded. This metamaterial, as Lanagan calls it, can steer microwaves—which cell phones use to send and receive information—in a unique way. The ultimate goal is smaller wireless components, such as antennas and filters.

Another project, with Cabot in Boyertown, involves the development of tiny electrolytic capacitors. The research, led by Elizabeth Dickey, professor of materials science, involves coating niobium metal particles with an oxide that stores a charge. "The capacitor works like a little battery, but it's much faster," says Lanagan. This technology could be used to development better, smaller defibrillators—devices that jump start the heart.

While the CDS receives support from the National Science Foundation, most of its funding for graduate students comes from companies like DuPont, Heraeus,and Cabot, eager to explore new technologies. "We have over 20 companies working with us that are competitors," Lanagan explains. "But they meet with us and decide on fundamental research that's useful for all of them."

"I think that's a really good model for working with industry," he adds. "The companies are getting a lot basic knowledge about their materials and the students are supported to do their thesis and publish papers about their work."

Mike Lanagan, Ph.D., is associate professor of engineering science and mechanics in the Materials Research Institute and associate director of the Center for Dielectric Studies, mxl46@psu.edu. Elizabeth Dickey. Ph.D., is associate professor of materials science and engineering in the College of Earth and Mineral Science, ecd10@psu.edu.

Last Updated March 16, 2005