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Paolo Lugli

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Director, Institute for Nanoelectronics 

Technical University of Munich
Institute for Nanoelectronics

Munich, Germany


  • B.S. (Laurea), Physics, University of Modena, Italy
  • M.S., Electrical Engineering, Colorado State University
  • Ph.D., Electrical Engineering, Colorado State University

Work Focus:

Lugli directs the Institute for Nanoelectronics at the Technical University of Munich in Germany.

Advice to Students:

I'd suggest that students get involved with activities where they can really work together -- such as robotics competitions.    


  - Technical University of Munich, Institute for Nanoelectronics


Q: When did you first find that your career path focused on nanotechnology?
Very early, actually! During my Ph.D. studies, I was dong simulations -- we were simulating things that didn’t exist at the time, between 1980 and 85, and we were looking at two things: One was ultrafast phenomena, which no experiment for existed at the time. And, second, we were looking at very small objects. At the time we called them sub-micrometer, not nanometer, but they were exactly the same thing. So basically, from the beginning of my career I was already involved in nanoelectronics.   

Q: What current nanotechnology applications are you working on?  
Lugli: My current research interests involve the modeling, fabrication and characterization of organic devices for electronics and optoelectronics applications, the design of organic circuits, the numerical simulation of microwave semiconductor devices, and the theoretical study of transport processes in nanostructures. By organic devices, I mean some polymeric devices, electronic devices, or optoelectronic devices which are based on polymers. And we do fabrication and characterization and modeling and the theory of it. Since I am in the EE department, we also do a lot of design of circuits and the architecture of how nanodevices could be used in the future. It could be a very different way from how current circuits and systems are going to be built. Most recently, we're moving into the area of energy -- in particular photovoltaics and photocatalysis -- both from the experimental point of view and the theoretical. In addition, we also do nanoimprinting and nanotransfers, which is a way to structure the surface or fabricate nanostructures using stamping. That involves the organic devices and the energy research -- it basically pulls everything together.   

Q: What's the most rewarding thing about working with nanotechnology?
Lugli: Mostly it's the idea that nanotechnology and nanoelectronics is really multidisciplinary. For example, for the most recent energy research that we have started, we had to get in touch with a lot of chemists, which we don't normally work with very much. It's a completely different world, a different community with different "languages" -- and that's very stimulating. And also, because, especially in these fields, where a lot of expertise is needed, you see the possibility to do something new by applying things that you know. Of course, then you have to learn or understand the other things that you don’t know, but that’s one of things that's very appealing.

The second aspect, which I think is very interesting particularly these days, is the fact that you can start small companies. There are quite a lot of spin-offs that originated from the work at university -- and a number of start-ups that are very successful. This is very attractive for young people -- they generate jobs. So I think those are the two areas where nanotechnology is a very, very interesting field.   

Q: Is there an example you can provide that shows how something you’ve worked on has positively impacted the world?
 No…well actually I've done a lot of things which I think helped in the development of science and technology, both from the experimental point of view and from the theoretical point of view. So I think my work has been more incremental -- there has been no revolutionary thing coming out of my work. So on one side this has been pretty disappointing, but I'm working on it. So no, I wouldn’t say that I've been able to change or impact the world, but have had impact incrementally. 

Q: What do you think is the single greatest impact nanotechnology has had on the world thus far?  
Lugli: Overall I think nanotechnology is in one sense pretty disappointing. It's not led to the results that many people expected, especially looking at the investments. I'm an electrical engineer and a physicist, so I look more from the bias on the impact on nanoelectronics. Every chip in every computer is already at the nano scale -- there are billions of devices which are few nanometers in length. So in a sense this is nanotechnology, but this is incremental, so things have simply gotten smaller and smaller. But, the way they work -- a transistor working in a chip for example -- is exactly the way they worked many years ago when they were much bigger. There's a lot of expectation, there's a lot of work, and papers published, but in fact rather small amounts of achievement.

Now if you look not just from the point of view from electronics, but more at materials, there are things like sun creams which are certainly a success of nanotechnology. This could be brought much further, for example in self-cleaning walls or surfaces.    

Q: Please give an example of what you envision nanotechnology applications leading to in the future. 
For the future, the expectations are very high, for example, energy. This is one of the reasons I started working on this field. Many countries -- Germany for example -- have decided in 10 years to shut down all of the nuclear power plants. That's a lot of energy which we'll have to provide possibly with renewable energy -- but the efficiency of this system is simply too low. And a country like Germany doesn't have a lot of sunshine, so it cannot go fully to photovoltaics. So the hope is that through nanotechnology and nanoelectronics you would be able to generate energy from the sun, which has enough energy for billions of years. And, when the sun stops shining, we stop living, so that's no problem. Still, we really need to find some very innovative solutions which don’t exist. So energy, is one topic where I think nanotechnology could, and I hope it will, have an impact.

Biology and medicine is another field where nanotechnology should have an impact. One thing for example that is coming out as positive already are biosensors and DNA screening. Now it is possible to do a DNA screening in hours; before it took a month. And this is involving a lot of technologies which come from semiconductor electronics, which has been applied also. But diagnostics, medicine, cancer treatment with nanoparticles, drug delivery -- these are applications that will be coming the soonest and possibly will have a very large impact.       

Q: Do you find yourself working more in a team situation, or more alone?
Lugli: As I said before, with the interdisciplinary nature of nanotechnology, nobody can do things alone. In fact, in a lot of universities, there are a lot of centers that take people from different backgrounds and put them together. Even on a project that's focused on electronic applications, you still need a team. Different students working on different aspects need to work together and, of course, talk to each other. And they always have to look for cooperation with other departments and universities, and this is also a sort of teamwork. And especially being in engineering, we have a connection to industry. Whether it's small industry or big industry, it doesn't matter, but at least we see the possible application of our work, and this is also another aspect of the teamwork. 

Q: If you work more as a team, what are some of the other areas of expertise of your team members?   
Lugli: Physicists, chemists, materials scientists, electrical engineers, and mechanical engineers -- there has to be a team of people that are able to talk to each other.      

Q: Did your university training help you in your nanotechnology work?
Yes and no. That was already almost 30 years ago, so things have changed. In my case, though, yes. Having a combination of physics and electrical engineering really helped because of the interdisciplinary nature of nanotechnology. What I try now with my students in classes at the graduate level, is to get them to think broad -- even if they work on a specific project. They need to see the global picture and have the tools to simply go from one problem to the other, which is getting harder and harder. So in my case, I was lucky enough to have a very stimulating environment, a great advisor, and a lot of colleague students that really helped me.  

Q: Do you have a mentor?  Did you in your college years?
Lugli: I always recognized the need to have one. I had two good mentors, one in Italy for my bachelor, and one in the U.S. After that I was pretty much in my own all the time, which has its advantages, because you decide your direction, decide what to learn -- and when you want to go in another direction, you just do it. But yes, I think I was pretty lucky. And it also helped to be able adjust situations around what I wanted. 

Q: If you had to do it all over again, would you still focus on nanotechnology applications?
I recently was at a reunion of old friends in Fort Collins, where I did my graduate studies 30 years ago. There I asked myself the same question: would I do it again, and would I do it again the way I did it? For example, before I finished my PhD, in 1984, the economy in the U.S. was going very well, especially in the electronics industry. There were a lot of opportunities in the universities, and inducing you to remain in the states -- a lot of my friends did that. I got a permanent research position at University Modena in Italy, and I decided to go back. I would have been happy with a job in the U.S., but somehow I would have been missing too much, so I decided to go back. Then, about 3 years later, I had to move to Rome, which wasn’t planned at all. At that time, though Rome is wonderful, it is very hard to live in. My move to Munich was more or less planned. Of course there's a lot of things I think I could have done a little bit better, but I still would have focused on these fields. 

Q: If a high school or college student was interested in nanotechnology, what advice would you give them to help prepare take on those roles?
Nanotechnology can be so many different things. I have two kids, 15 and 18 years old. One is finishing high school next year; the other has two more years to go. They will go to college most likely. They know what I'm doing; I don't try to push them, but I tell them where the opportunities are. I look at my kids, and it's amazing that they've got the abilities they have with software, electronic equipment and other tools.

I'd suggest that students get involved with activities where they can really work together -- such as robotics competitions. And some museums, such as the Deutsches Museum in Munich, have exhibits on nanotechnology. We also have a big research cluster which is called Nanosystems Initiative Munich. Every year they organize what we call a daily event called “Nanoday” for kids, schools, and families -- and all universities are involved. On the streets, they build solar cells using spinach, or blueberries, and this is a great opportunity for preuniversity students to get involved. And this helps a lot because also the media gets involved, so that improves general understanding of the importance of nanotechnology.

I think engineering should go into high school, or at least something practical, depending on budget. In the university, I decided to try to implement some practical activity in every course I teach. Of course, 50 students is the limit where you can really do it, if you have hundreds, forget it, if you have less, it's great. So they don't only hear about things, they do them.