Beyond Smooth: ECE team wins NSF Major Research Instrumentation Award

Posted: October 3, 2021

To the naked eye, smooth surfaces, like a mirror or glass window, might look relatively flawless. 

Keep zooming in, however, and that flat surface begins to change at the microscopic level. 

Ohio State University Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Ronald M. Reano said this may be fine for some uses, but next-generation technologies demand perfection – down to a tiny fraction of the wavelength of visible light.

Reano’s team just won over $475,000 from the National Science Foundation Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) Program to bring this ultra-smooth, state-of-the-art technology into the labs at The Ohio State University. 

As Project Lead, he said, the award enables his team to purchase and install a chemical mechanical polishing (CMP) system for frontier research and education opportunities. The ultimate final location of the equipment is either at the ElectroScience Lab or Nanotech West Lab, both on West Campus.

“CMP planarizes a material surface, to roughness levels below one nanometer, through a combination of chemical and mechanical processes,” Reano said. “It is compatible with a variety of materials including oxide, tungsten, silicon, polysilicon, silicon carbide, quartz, sapphire, indium phosphide, gallium arsenide, and ferroelectric materials.”

With such ultra-smoothing technology, he said, Ohio State can enable advanced microelectronics, optoelectronics, micro-electro-mechanical systems, and novel device architectures. 

The CMP system aligns with the university’s research priorities in quantum information science and engineering, cyber security, communications, and mobility. 


Reano said advanced instrumentation is required to achieve these nanoscale levels of planarization. 

“The availability of a CMP system benefits students, regionally and campus-wide, who are interested in micro and nanotechnology for science and engineering,” he said. “Critical research involves integrated photonics devices for classical and quantum applications, high power electronics based on ultrawide bandgap semiconductors, 5G/6G communications, and sensing devices, and compound semiconductor technology for ultraviolet and topological lasers.” 

The professor emphasized how an outstanding team effort at multiple levels made the award possible for Ohio State. His team includes ECE co-investigators and faculty members Betty Lise AndersonShamsul Arafin, Nima Ghalichechian, and Hongping Zhao. The NSF award is augmented with support from the Ohio Department of Higher Education, the Ohio State Office of Research, the Ohio State College of Engineering, the ECE department, and the Electroscience Laboratory.

In addition to impacting future cutting-edge research, Reano and his team plan on creating hands-on outreach activities and laboratory visits to allow students from the Columbus area to observe the chemical-mechanical process. 

“At an early age, the exposure of advanced technology demonstrations to the next generation of scientists and engineers stimulates curiosity and creates awareness that can lead to long-term involvement in STEM fields," Reano said.

Within the College of Engineering, the ECE department has a robust K-12 outreach program, which in the last 10 years has reached over 31,000 students in central Ohio.

“Students will have the opportunity to engage with the CMP tool as it transforms the surface of an initially rough semiconductor wafer,” Reano said. “Before-and-after scanning electron micrographs will be used to relate physical changes at the microscopic level to observable changes at the macroscopic level.”