March 31, 2004

Cornellians Present Nano-American Flag

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Research in the Biotechnology department has proven that art can be infused with science to produce artwork the size of one-billionth of a meter. Yesterday Cornell engineers and scientists presented the world’s smallest, colored replica of the United States flag on a silicon chip to the White House to honor nanotechnology research.

The chip was created by Madanagopal Kunnavakkam Ph.D ’01, senior biotechnology associate, and Scott Stelick, research support specialist, to honor the recently passed 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act which provides funding for nanotechnology research beginning in 2005. The chip was placed in a paperweight, and was presented by Joshua Wolfe, ’99, a managing partner of Lux Capital firm specializing in nanotechnology to John Marburger III, science advisor to President George W. Bush.

“We built this [chip] to commemorate the nanotechnology bill that was passed by Congress last year,” Kunnavakkam said. “Another chip was also built for the Senator who introduced the bill.”

An analogous paperweight will later be presented to Sen. Sherwood Boehlert (R-New Hartford), chairperson of the House Science Committee, for the introduction of the legislation last year.

Nanofabrication is used to store data in structures at one millionth of a meter. The process is commonly used by computer engineers to create memory chips and is also becoming more prevalent in the medical, military, and aerospace industries.

The silicon chip is an elaborate nanofabrication of six flags and 15 White Houses, refracting light to exhibit the colors of the design.

The nano-American flag stands at only 3 millimeters wide by 1.5 millimeters tall — if the flag were tinier, it would not be able to retain color since its dimensions would be smaller than the wavelength of light.

In order to create the colors of the stars and stripes of the flag, Kunnavakkam and Stelick used diffraction gratings. The pair drew lines nano-width apart into the glass of a silicon wafer. “We used a four inch silicon wafer … [and] etched patterns on its surface,” Kunnavakkam said. The lines diffract the wavelengths of red, white, and blue, coloring the flag.

Similarly, the nano-White House was produced using silicon-based technology. The chip is composed of a larger White House, only 4.5 millimeters wide, surrounded by four smaller White Houses, only 510 micrometers across. Above each smaller White House stands an even tinier American Flag. In fact, the stars on these American flags are so microscopic that Carl Batt, the Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor of Biotechnology, estimates that three stars on the flag could fit into one red blood cell.

After infusing color into the design, the nanofabricated chip was formatted to about the size of a stamp and was placed into an engraved paperweight honoring nanotechnology research and the legislators who passed it.

“We were informed of the project in January, and it took us about two months to create,” said Stelick.

The project was funded by the Nanobiotechnology Center, the Cornell Center for Materials Research, the Center for Nanoscale Systems and the Cornell Nanoscale Science and Technology Facility.

All and all, Kunnavakkam and Stelick believe the chip is a success and are excited by the results.

“It uses well-known optical refraction [techniques] to produce something that is visually-pleasing … [and] we had fun doing it,” Kunnavakkam said.

“We wanted to build something that was colorful and fun, and we did with this chip,” added Stelick.

Archived article by Eileen Soltes
Sun Staff Writer