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Facility Highlight: Columbia Nano Initiative Shared Facilities

Updated: Aug 12, 2019

Nanotech NYC sits down with students, faculty and researchers to give those interested a glimpse into the world of nanotechnology. Today we sit down with Dr. Nava Ariel-Sternberg, Director of the Columbia Nano Initiative (CNI) Shared Labs.

Dr. Nava Ariel-Sternberg, Director of the Columbia Nano Initiative (CNI) Shared Labs

Let’s start with you Dr. Ariel-Sternberg. Tell us about your role at Columbia University?

Columbia Nano Initiative consist of shared laboratories providing access to cutting edge equipment in Nanoscience and engineering. I’m the Director of the CNI shared labs, overseeing the lab's operation, supervising the personnel who manages and maintains those labs, as well as looking over the lab’s safety, assisting with proposal writing, and am responsible for the labs budget.

Can you give us some insight into your educational and work history prior to coming to Columbia?

I have 23 years of experience working in Nanotechnology and Nanofabrication specifically, out of them 8 years of labs management. My educational background consists of a B.Sc in Materials Science and a B.A. in Physics from the Technion in Haifa, Israel, and a Ph.D. In Materials Science from M.I.T. in Cambridge MA. After completing my Ph.D., I worked as a Process Integrator at Intel, R&D materials engineer at Elbit Electro-optics Systems, and I previously managed the Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology at Tel Aviv University, overseeing a similar labs cluster to the one at CNI.

One of the many nanofabrication bays located inside the CNI Clean Room. Shown in the figure are various physical deposition systems, allowing users to deposition a host of materials, including metals, dielectrics, semiconductors and more with sub-nanometer accuracy.

Can you describe what Columbia Nano Initiative is and how it came to be?

Columbia Nano Initiative (CNI) was established jointly in 2014 by the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) and the School of Arts and Sciences (A&S) to foster advanced multidisciplinary and collaborative research in Nanoscale Science and Engineering. The CNI establishment builds upon a long history of multidisciplinary research across academic departments at Columbia University, originating with the Columbia Radiation Laboratory (CRL), which was founded in 1942 by Prof. I. I. Rabi and focused on radar development research as well as important laser related discoveries. During the 1980’s and 1990's CRL was led by Prof. Richard Osgood and Prof. George Flynn and in 2000, CRL changed its name to the Center for Integrated Science and Engineering (CISE) to reflect the nature of the continuing research program. CNI was an evolvement of CISE and was founded by Prof. Keren Bergman and Prof. Jim Yardley, mainly to answer a growing need to upgrade the existing research infrastructure and facilities for nanoscience and engineering. Under the new initiative the university invested over $20M in renovating the shared labs and upgrading its research equipment. This led to the development of several major research centers and programs including the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) and the Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC), as well as state-of-the-art shared nanofabrication, characterization, and microscopy facilities that support and enable groundbreaking research.

What are the facilities that fall under the Columbia Nano Initiative umbrella?

The CNI Shared laboratory facilities consist of a Clean Room facility for micro- and nanofabrication located on the 10th floor of the CEPSR building, an e-beam writing suite on the 7th floor of the Northwest Corner building, a Shared Materials Characterization Laboratory (SMCL) located on the 2nd and 5th floors of Havemeyer, and an Electron Microscopy (EM) laboratory located in the basement of Havemeyer, as well as in CEPSR 1016. The clean room consists of a comprehensive set of nanofabrication instruments which are available to use for device architecture in various applications; nanoelectronic and nanophotonic, microfluidics, micro and nano-electromechanical systems (MEMS/NEMS), 2D materials, flexible electronics, nano-bio interfaces, and more. The Materials Characterization Laboratory and the Electron Microscopy laboratory provide access to state-of-the-art instruments for chemical, thermal, optical, magnetic, and crystallographic characterization of materials at the micro- and nanoscale.

Dr. Daniel Paley, Director of the Shared Materials Characterization Lab, working with a researcher to utilize an x-ray photoelectron spectrometer, used to find the elemental composition of materials.

Can you give us an idea of who the users of the facilities typically are?

The user base of the CNI facilities is highly versatile. In the fiscal year 2018-2019, we had over 100 research groups use our facilities. About 85% of our lab users are Columbia researchers and students, we have 2% of our lab users coming from other universities and government agencies, and the remaining 13% are from the private sector, mainly startup companies that are working in our labs.

Who maintains the facilities?

The labs are managed by a team of dedicated technical staff who are responsible for the smooth and safe operation of the labs, technical equipment preventative maintenance and repair, consumables, materials, and chemicals supply, as well as users training, process and research support. I am fortunate to have three highly professional lab directors reporting to me, James Vichiconti is the Director of the Clean Room, Dr. Amir Zangiabadi, the Director of the EM lab, and Dr. Dan Paley, the Director of SMCL. We have two highly experienced process engineers, Dr. Youry Borisenkov, and Dr. Phil Chow, working in the clean room assisting with users’ research and developing research protocols. Supporting the three labs are also Cris Belfer, the CNI labs equipment engineer who is responsible for the smooth supply of the labs utilities and facilities, and our very dedicated research operation assistant Melody Gonzalez who is making sure the labs supply is sufficient, provides lab orientation, and more. For training and certification we also get the help from approximately 20 experienced and dedicated students who are “super users” for certain pieces of equipment and their involvement in our operation serves both as part of their own professional training as well as takes some of the workload off the technical staff.

James Vichiconti, Clean Room Director, inspects a high vacuum chamber located inside the CNI Clean Room.

What is the process like for someone who wants to start using the facility?

An outside user who wishes to use our lab can either get trained on our equipment and gain direct access to the lab or request that our staff performs the research for them. Depending on the nature of the attachment, we have two legal agreements (one for each case) that the users need to sign. After that they can get a lab ID with which they are able to go through the safety training and access protocol for the lab itself. After they gain access to the lab they may begin training on specific pieces of equipment. We have a lot of information on our website:

Can you give us some examples of academic research that is going on in the facilities?

A large group of researchers, led by Prof. Michal Lipson, are working in our facility on silicon photonics. They are fabricating optical and non-linear optical devices, MEMS and NEMS for optomechanics, optofluidics, and neuroscience applications using silicon nanofabrication technology. Another major area of research performed using the CNI shared labs is in 2D materials. These researchers are studying 2D material properties and fabricating devices from graphene, BN, WS2 and other exciting materials. This group is also part of the Columbia University Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC), headed by Prof. Jim Hone and Prof. Collin Nuckolls. Prof. Nuckolls is leading together with Prof. Xiaoyang Zhu another research area of multifunctional materials made of superatoms, tailoring materials properties of atom clusters for novel materials.

A CNI user handles a transmission electron microscopy (TEM) grid used in the Shared Materials Characterization Laboratory to mount samples for imaging materials at the atomic scale.

Can you give us a few examples of industrial development that the labs facilitate?

We have several startup companies working in our facilities as their R&D and prototyping lab. Lumiode is one of them, a startup company working on high-brightness micro-displays for augmented reality and other display applications. Firehouse Horology is another startup company utilizing the facility. They have developed silicon based hairsprings for watches with unique properties, using microfabrication and MEMS technology fabricated in our clean room. Chemeleon (formerly Drinksavvy) is another startup company working on a colorimetric sensing platform for various applications, including the rapid detection of the different date rape drugs, cerebral spinal fluid and more. Their technology combines nanophotonics and molecular recognition in a novel way to detect and signal via dramatic changes in colors on their sensor surfaces.


For more information on the CNI Shared facilities, we highly recommend attending the 2019 CNI Industry Day on September 5th, 2019. The event will highlight companies, entrepreneurs, faculty and other technical experts and discuss how their cutting-edge research is facilitated by the CNI Shared Labs.

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