In his visionary 1959 talk, "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom," Richard Feynman challenged and urged scientists to explore the untapped potential of the small scale. Feynman's bold ideas on the direct manipulation of individual atoms anticipated the fields of nanoscience and nanotechnology, microelectromechanical systems, and quantum computing, among others. Fast forward to 2003, more than four decades later, and Feynman's vision materialized into the Kavli Nanoscience Institute (KNI) at Caltech.
Celebrating its 20th anniversary in November 2023, the KNI has not only enabled breakthroughs in nanoscience but has also left an indelible mark on Caltech's culture of innovation and interdisciplinary collaboration. To mark this milestone, the KNI will host a symposium on March 8, 2024, with invited talks by scientists, including Nobel Laureate and former Secretary of Energy Dr. Steven Chu (Stanford University), Professor John Martinis (UCSB), and others. There will also be a panel comprised of former and present directors of the KNI—including Caltech faculty members Michael Roukes, Axel Scherer, Nai-Chang Yeh, Oskar Painter (MS '95, PhD '01), and Julia Greer—moderated by the EAS Division Chair, Professor Harry Atwater. On Thursday, March 7, Kavli Prize Laureate and Caltech alumnus, Dr. George M. Whitesides (PhD '64; Harvard University) will give a special public lecture to kick off the celebration.
To help celebrate this anniversary, ENGenuity spoke with former and present KNI directors, staff, faculty, and alumni to provide both a retrospective view of the KNI and insight into its future.
"One Professor, One Telescope"
Before the KNI, Caltech lacked a centralized facility for nanoscience research and nanofabrication. Faculty had to purchase their own equipment and establish their own cleanrooms—labs designed to maintain an environment free from airborne particles and contaminants. Often, the equipment in these siloed cleanrooms were makeshift replicas of commercial nanofabrication instruments, reflecting the cost-intensive and isolated nature of early nanofabrication at Caltech.
"In the past, each Caltech professor operated within their own empire. Only exaggerating slightly, it was like one professor, one telescope," says Michael Roukes, Frank J. Roshek Professor of Physics, Applied Physics, and Bioengineering. Roukes' research involves the use of nanoelectromechanical systems—devices that incorporate electrical functionality at the nanoscale.
"But this model—with faculty each in their separate silo—was not readily transferable to nanoscience because of the significant expense of the research tools involved," Roukes says. "For nanoscience, we needed economies of scale and a specialized cleanroom capable of encompassing all the diverse activity going on at Caltech."
"You could compare the time before the KNI to a medieval fiefdom where faculty would exchange individual nanofabrication capabilities for other favors," adds Axel Scherer, the Bernard Neches Professor of Electrical Engineering, Applied Physics and Physics; Merkin Institute Professor. Scherer heads the Nanofabrication Group at Caltech, which focuses on the design, fabrication, and characterization of nanoscale photonic, magnetic, and fluidic devices and systems. "The need for consolidation arose from the expense of maintaining equipment, which was becoming unbearable for a single research group."
Things began to change in January 2000 when President Bill Clinton, inspired by Feynman's talk, chose Caltech to launch the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). This initiative heightened the focus on nanoscience at Caltech and attracted the attention of the newly formed Kavli Foundation, which sought to establish Kavli institutes specializing in nanotechnology, neuroscience, astrophysics, and theoretical physics. Simultaneously, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation gifted Caltech $600 million, setting a record for the largest donation ever received by a higher education institution at the time. These developments spurred the proposal for a Caltech nanoscience initiative. Eventually, in 2003, Caltech secured investments for nanoscience from both foundations, marking the birth of the KNI and the first nanoscience-oriented institute endowed by the Kavli Foundation.
Roukes, who led the proposals to secure funding and Caltech approval, became the founding director of the KNI. Scherer, also a founding member of the KNI, joined Roukes as co-director three years later.
"I had heartwarming meetings with Gordon Moore and Fred Kavli in the early days of the KNI," Roukes says. "They were wildly enthusiastic about our vision for nanoscience at Caltech. They provided the means for us to nucleate this new way of doing things on campus—creating a centralized facility that could collectively lift all our boats and take us to a new place."
In addition to supporting economies of scale for creating advanced nanodevices, the KNI has served as a unifying force for cross-disciplinary activity. When it started, the KNI focused on developing second-to-none capabilities in two clear areas: nanobiotechnology and nanophotonics. Over time, this specialization has led to progress in a wide range of fields from quantum science and medical engineering to astronomy and space exploration.
"Before the KNI, there was no centralized facility for nanofabrication at Caltech. So, this was something exciting to build," says Guy DeRose, a key figure in the KNI's formation and evolution. After completing a PhD in Physics from Case Western Reserve University, DeRose joined Caltech in 1994. In 2000, DeRose became the lab manager for Axel Scherer, where he organized and oversaw the Large-scale Integration of Nanostructures Lab (LSI Nano), a joint effort between Scherer and Roukes and a precursor to the KNI.
"The KNI formed to group faculty together and pool their ideas, their resources, and their ability to conduct cutting-edge research," DeRose says. "We're benefitting from different experiences, different viewpoints, and different approaches to doing the same type of research."
"A Powerful Team of Dreamers and Thinkers"
In 2008, five years after the founding of the Institute itself, the KNI Lab—or nanofabrication facility—finished construction. Over the 15 years of the facility's operation, the KNI user base has expanded from a small group of about 20 users to over 150 annually, with researchers from other universities and industry joining the Caltech cohort.
Upon completion of the lab, DeRose's role shifted from Scherer's lab manager to his current position as KNI Associate Director of Technical Operations. In this role, DeRose oversees the technical staff, manages equipment availability, facilitates user training, and assists other staff members in broadening the horizons in their roles. But with only a handful of technical staff maintaining and providing training on all the various equipment, managing the KNI's resources and meeting high demand is sometimes a challenging balancing act. This is compounded by the high operational costs of running a cleanroom facility. For instance, a single electron beam writer—a "pen" for writing extremely small designs on materials using a focused beam of electrons—can cost upwards of $3 million.
"Fortunately, we have great cooperation from our users. Our facility operates 24/7, but our staff work regular, full-time schedules" DeRose says. "I couldn't sleep at night if it wasn't for the Caltech honor code because I know that when students and postdocs are using the lab and none of my staff is present, our community takes responsibility for safe operations. It's part of the Caltech culture."
Although the KNI staff is modest in size, their know-how propels the KNI lab forward. DeRose, like many of the technical staff, also conducts research in the KNI lab. His area of expertise is in electron beam lithography, which is the process of defining and drawing a pattern on small surfaces—the e-beam writer being one associated tool. This process is often where nanofabrication starts, and it is the building block of most of the field. "I'm investigating new types of electron beam resist materials for new applications—things we can make available to our users," DeRose says.
"The members of our technical staff are much more special than what you would find in a typical cleanroom; they are educated, they are curious, and they are researchers themselves," says Julia Greer, the Faculty Director of the KNI and the Ruben F. and Donna Mettler Professor of Materials Science, Mechanics and Medical Engineering. "I feel very privileged to be surrounded by such a powerful team of dreamers and thinkers," Greer adds. "That's what makes this job enjoyable."
Caltech's small size relative to peer institutions also provides an advantage for the KNI Lab. "We have the same capabilities, like the e-beam writers and focused ion beams, for one-tenth of the users you would have at a different university," Greer says. "This allows us to try new things without having to wait two or three weeks to book something. Our state-of-the-art capabilities are much more easily accessible."
One such capability involves the use of a nanoscribe, a special two-photon lithography tool that can fabricate three-dimensional architectures with high spatial resolution. "The acquisition of the nanoscribe was instrumental in my research," says Greer, who also leads a research group specializing in micro- and nano-architected materials. Her group uses the nanoscribe to craft intricate, three-dimensional structures within the range of 50 nanometers to 50 microns—the diameter of a virus to the thickness of a sheet of paper. Together with a focused ion beam, Greer's work using the KNI's nanoscribe has led to unusually tough materials smaller than a human hair and more impact resistant than Kevlar.
Contrary to industrial nanofabrication, which prioritizes mass production, the endeavors conducted in the KNI are primarily centered around prototyping. Combined with Caltech's small population, this freedom of experimental production fosters creativity and encourages researchers to explore inventive applications of equipment, often pushing tools beyond their intended usage to achieve novel results.
"There's a self-sustaining culture and a flexibility to try new things, which allows us to ultimately do research that you couldn't do in a regular production facility," says Austin Minnich, Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Physics, and EAS Division Deputy Chair.
Minnich's research group has devised an unconventional technique for atomic layer etching—a process used to define patterns on a chip—that operates one atomic layer at a time in a high vacuum, ensuring a lower-damage and cleaner process compared to traditional etching methods. This newer technique uses an atomic layer deposition tool in an opposite fashion—removing material rather than depositing material.
"Without the KNI, we couldn't do most of what we're doing. Here, people are not only open to trying something unconventional, but they also help," Minnich says.
"Push the Frontiers of Science Forward"
Beyond its advanced cleanroom facility, the KNI extends its interdisciplinary influence by partnering with offices that support students and researchers on campus and in surrounding communities.
"We have a longstanding relationship with the Student-Faculty Programs office and are proud to be the first center to formally support WAVE fellowships for summer undergraduate researchers," says Tiffany Kimoto, Executive Director of the KNI.
One noteworthy KNI program is SURF-the-WAVE, which annually welcomes five to ten undergraduate researchers during the summer to engage in hands-on work with KNI-affiliated faculty members and technical staff. Additionally, the KNI sponsors the Nils Asplund FAST Prize—named in honor of one of the KNI's early staff members—a dynamic program designed for the development of innovative research ideas. This initiative invites collaboration between Caltech or JPL faculty members, postdoctoral researchers, and students, working alongside KNI staff to establish or enhance research capabilities inside the Lab.
"We also collaborate with local community colleges and minority-serving institutions, such as Pasadena City College and its Micro- and Nano-Technology Education Center (MNTEC), most notably by enabling robust technical and research menteeships/internships with Caltech graduate students and postdoctoral scholars," Kimoto adds. These collaborations are made possible through Caltech Connection, a program established in 2018 by Scott Cushing, KNI-affiliated faculty member and Assistant Professor of Chemistry.
"The KNI has fostered a collaborative atmosphere, but the biggest impact has been on the training of students and junior researchers," says Harry Atwater, Otis Booth Leadership Chair, Division of Engineering and Applied Science; Howard Hughes Professor of Applied Physics and Materials Science; Director, Liquid Sunlight Alliance. "I've seen this with my own students. They go into the KNI, and they learn a set of skills that they don't get anywhere else on campus."
"There's a whole generation of students that now have expert knowledge of fabrication that they take with them in their future work," Atwater adds.
As alumni further their careers in industry and various universities, expert knowledge of nanofabrication enabled by the KNI ripples beyond Caltech. "The KNI and Julia Greer's group forced me to have a fundamental and nanoscale perspective on how I solve problems," says Ottman Tertuliano (PhD '18), alumnus of Greer's research group and AMA Family Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics at the University of Pennsylvania. "In my research group, we take techniques typically used for precision semiconductor fabrication and characterization and apply them to processing and understanding how mechanics influence biology in human tissues."
"The KNI made me realize that science is more than science; it's also the relationships you build," Tertuliano adds. "KNI staff were incredibly encouraging and understanding. They knew that if you wanted to do creative things, you had to push boundaries. They removed barriers for me to pursue unconventional ideas."
Jennifer (Jen) Dionne (PhD '09), Associate Professor of Materials Science and Radiology at Stanford, also reflects on the lasting impact of the KNI on her career. "My current research is highly interdisciplinary, and I credit the KNI for showing me the power of different fields and diverse perspectives coming together," Dionne says. Along with her ongoing research pursuits in global health and sustainability, Dionne served as the Senior Associate Vice Provost for research platforms and shared facilities at Stanford—a role informed by her time in the KNI. "Caltech has been a leader in nanoscience because it supports the need for advanced facilities in fabrication and characterization to push the frontiers of science forward."
Recently, a new applied physics course for undergraduates, APh/EE 119, has extended the KNI's educational impact beyond graduate students and postdocs. The course, led by Professor Scherer and technical staff members like DeRose and materials process engineer Alex Wertheim, provides undergraduate students with both theoretical knowledge and hands-on experience in creating devices utilizing the KNI's state-of-the-art facilities.
"For the last 20 years, I've been trying to figure out a way to connect the best undergraduate students in the world with the best equipment," Scherer says. "We've never had an on-ramp for learning nanofabrication tools and techniques. I think we owe it to our students to offer them that access."
"I want to make sure that students learn valuable, comprehensive information and acquire a strong knowledge base in nanofabrication tools," adds DeRose, who leads the electron beam lithography track for the course. "It's also an opportunity for our staff to develop systematic training methods instead of relying on one-time, ad hoc approaches."
Besides promoting nanoscience research and education, the KNI is vital for recruiting rising talent. "The existence of the KNI played a big part in attracting me to come to Caltech," says Stevan Nadj-Perge, Professor of Applied Physics and Materials Science. Nadj-Perge, who was named a 2017-2018 KNI-Wheatley Scholar, uses the KNI lab to fabricate devices that can investigate the properties of two-dimensional materials like graphene. This research has led to new understandings of the nature of graphene and superconductivity in general.
"The KNI is an essential pillar for my research. Having this facility and a group of people who can help you in getting started is crucial in recruiting new faculty, graduate students, and postdocs," Nadj-Perge says.
"The Next Frontier"
Two decades ago, the KNI emerged as a hub for nanoscience at Caltech, unifying resources and expertise from various departments and divisions. Since then, the nanofabrication industry has steadily pushed the limits of size, with silicon-based nanotechnology approaching the 5-nanometer length production range. In contrast, much of the nanofabrication work conducted within the KNI operates in the larger 10-100 nanometer length range. Unlocking the potential of smaller-scale devices promises profound insights into the quantum and biological domains, but achieving this potential relies on research facilities like the KNI keeping pace with the ongoing advancements in the industry.
"If we want to continue doing research and not leave it up to the large companies of the world, we should have the capability of making these kinds of structures that are beyond the state-of-the-art," Scherer says.
One new development fueling technological advancements is the CHIPS and Science Act, signed into law by President Biden in 2022. The CHIPS Act, which stands for "Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors," provides $52.7 billion for American semiconductor research, development, manufacturing, and workforce expansion. Like Clinton's National Nanotechnology Initiative in the early 2000s, the CHIPS Act represents an opportunity for the KNI and Caltech to dive headfirst into a fresh wellspring of nanoscience interest and funding.
Recently, Caltech joined the California Defense Ready Electronics and Microdevices Superhub (DREAMS), an offshoot of the CHIPS Act. DREAMS is a USC-led coalition of defense companies and 16 universities, mostly located in southern California, focused on accelerating 5G/6G technologies and advanced communication networks. The KNI will act as a key research facility in making the goals of DREAMS a reality.
"We've launched new fields at Caltech that have become worldwide efforts in nanoscience and nanotechnology, and we will continue to do so, but only because we have enjoyed access to the best kinds of tools available to innovate," Roukes says. "We now need to push forward into the next frontier and completely renew ourselves, equipment-wise, from the inside out."
Part of that renewal involves carving a particular nanoscience niche. Caltech's small size provides flexibility and relative ease of access within the KNI cleanroom, but the disadvantage of Caltech's size is that it cannot support every area of nanoscience and nanofabrication. "A nanofabrication facility that would do everything and cater to everybody's needs would be ten times bigger than what we can support," Scherer says. "We have to choose carefully about what we want to do." As nanofabrication permeates into almost every scientific discipline, the tools currently within the KNI will no longer be sufficient in satisfying specific needs.
To thrive in its third decade and beyond, the KNI needs a reinvestment in advanced precision instruments to complement its sharpened focus. Throughout its history, the KNI has upgraded and enhanced the technical capabilities in the KNI Lab, but several tools, including the deposition and etching systems, purchased two decades ago are still in use today. In many cases, it's not that the machinery itself that requires attention, but rather the microprocessors and outdated operating systems powering and controlling the machinery.
Historically, various faculty members would purchase a new piece of equipment for the KNI community to use and maintain—including contributions from Roukes, Scherer, Atwater, Greer, Oskar Painter, and Nai-Chang Yeh to name a few. Yet, with the rising costs of equipment, maintenance, and the dynamic nature of individual research directions, this approach to acquiring and preserving equipment is unsustainable.
"In the last 20 years, the KNI has served as a flagship nanofabrication facility on campus, and we want to continue enabling discovery of new phenomena at the nanoscale," Greer says. "But we can't simply carry the practice of repairing and upgrading existing equipment; rather, we need to adjust and enhance our cleanroom capabilities to better reflect and accommodate the ever-evolving research needs." Beyond the increasing miniaturization of semiconductor technology, these ever-evolving endeavors include Professor Andrei Faraon's pioneering work on quantum photonics and Professor Chiara Daraio's advancements in 3D printing of algae and other biomaterials.
Twenty years in, the story of the KNI so far is one of collaboration, innovation, and a dedication to furthering the field of nanoscience. But now, the KNI stands at a critical juncture. The ambitious research initiatives associated with the CHIPS Act and the groundbreaking ideas from KNI users require a fleet of healthy, modern nanofabrication equipment. These tools are crucial for both reliable device processing and experiments that stretch the capabilities of the equipment itself. The KNI is actively working to bring investments that will support the next 20 years.
"Our focus is not on creating the next fastest chip or the world's most capable battery," Greer says. "Instead, our mission is to uncover the new and unexpected phenomena that lie at the heart of these possibilities, and this kind of fundamental research is SO Caltech."