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Stephen Fonash

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Bayard D. Kunkle Chair in Engineering Sciences
Director, Penn State Center for Nanotechnology Education & Utilization
Director, PA Nanofabrication Manufacturing Technology Partnership
Director, National Science Foundation National Nanotechnology Applications and Career Knowledge Center

Penn State University

University Park, PA, US


  • B.S., Engineering Sciences, Pennsylvania State University
  • Ph.D., Engineering, University of Pennsylvania

Work Focus:

Dr. Stephen Fonash holds the Bayard D. Kunkle Chair in Engineering Sciences, at the Pennsylvania State University. His activities at Penn State include serving as the director of Penn State’s Center for Nanotechnology Education and Utilization (CNEU), director of the National Science Foundation National Nanotechnology Applications and Career Knowledge (NACK) Center, and director of the Pennsylvania Nanofabrication Manufacturing Technology Partnership.

Advice to Students:

Talk to your high school teachers -- but be aware that they may not be too knowledgeable in nanotechnology and in all that it can do. Remember that when you go to a university, you're not going to get into nanotechnology right away -- you're going to get into the basic STEM (science-technology-engineering-mathematics) courses. 


  - Penn State University


Q: When did you first find that your career path focused on nanotechnology?
Back in the late 80s, because of my area of research is electronic devices, I was naturally led down the path of smaller and smaller things. At that time I was working in sensors, transistors, and diodes and also photovoltaics -- as I continue to do. The size evolution for sensors and microelectronics was towards smaller and smaller things, and I began to realize the advantages offered by the uniqueness of the nanoscale in many applications. Also at that time my interests broadened greatly -- and I became quite interested in the biological applications of nanotechnology. Because of this increasing interest in the nano-scale and its importance, I established the Penn State Nanofabrication Facility in 1992. I sort of brought nanotechnology to Penn State -- I think that's pretty much acknowledged at Penn State. In about that time frame I worked with Cornell, Stanford, and Howard, and together we founded what was called the National Science Foundation (NSF) National Nanotechnology Users Network (NNUN) to make nanotechnology facilities available for use by researchers and companies across the whole country. We had 10 years of NNUN funding from NSF for this mission, and then I led Penn State into the NSF National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN), the successor to NNUN, which continues today. In 1998, I also founded the Center for Nanotechnology Education and Utilization (CNEU) which I continue to direct.

I'm a researcher as well as a teacher--I usually teach graduate-student level courses. However, around 1998 industry in Pennsylvania came to me with the need for more technicians trained in micro- and nanotechnology in PA. So, together we went to the state, and we set up in 1998 the Pennsylvania Nanofabrication Manufacturing Technology (NMT) Partnership. This was the beginning of my becoming very interested in effective education for nanotechnology workforce development. The NMT concept was—and is—for Penn State to share its resources with PA community and technical colleges to give two-year degree students a hands-on education in micro-and nanotechnology. I talked with faculty, deans, and presidents at these schools and together we worked to institute nanotechnology programs for two-year degree students across PA. Under the PA NMT concept, the two-year degree institutions send their students for one semester to Penn State -- and we give them a hands-on immersion in nanotechnology. We developed a set of six courses to teach a skill set for these technicians, so they can get jobs in a variety of fields. The key philosophical pillar of what I started with the PA NMT Partnership is sharing -- I was able to get Penn State to share its facilities with community colleges and to teach this NMT immersion semester as a service for these PA community colleges. Another basic pillar is to educate the students for a lifetime--give them skills that will last a lifetime and don't educate them for an industry. So with that philosophy, people coming out of the PA NMT program work for pharmaceutical companies, they work for chemical companies, some work for electronics companies, they work for solar cell companies, all kinds of companies. And they earn an associate degree, but not from Penn State, but from their community college. Penn State just teaches this immersion semester. Penn State now provides this service to 33 schools in Pennsylvania. We've graduated almost 900 students from this program. Now, New York State has adopted this skilled nanotechnology workforce development approach. They're doing it with community colleges, and SUNY Albany is the university partner. Minnesota is also doing it. The partner university there is the University of Minnesota and the key community college is Dakota County Technical College. And Washington State and Indiana are doing it; Puerto Rico's doing it.    

Q: What current nanotechnology applications are you working on?  
Fonash: I'm working in several different research directions. All of them involve nanotechnology in some way. We're doing work in nanoscale transistors, and we use silicon nanowires that we make with a very different approach than people normally us. Normally, people put the catalysts that cause silicon nanowires to form down onto an empty surface, and they don’t know exactly where the catalyst is going to go, and then they grow the silicon nanowires. Then they try to harvest them, catch them, and then they place them. And we think that's not a manufacturable way of doing things.  Because I'm engineer, I like the science, but I also like to make something that is reasonable. So we've come up with a scheme where you actually make a little tunnel, that's horizontally oriented, and it's exactly where you want the transistor to be. We then put the catalyst in the tunnel and then we grow the nanowire in the tunnel, and make it into a transistor. And you don't have to move the nanowire since you grew the nanowire where you wanted it -- and we have a patent for that. We call it "grow-in-place," as opposed to "grow-and-place," which is the way pretty much everyone else is doing it. But, there are problems with our approach that necessitate more research. The problems have to do with morphology around the surface of the nanowire, but we've gotten very good at making excellent transistors anyway, and we've published on that. And then we're looking at new ways of using of positioning that catalyst that is used in the tunnel -- we're looking at different ways of self-assembly of that catalyst, and we're continuing to develop that idea.

The other big area of my current interests is using nanotechnology in solar cells. I've been active in solar cell research for about 35 years, and I've written the book Solar Cell Device Physics which came out in 2010 and which is pretty much accepted as the “bible” for that subject. We developed a computer program called AMPS -- we being me and my students -- which is used by about 2000 people around the world and is very highly regarded.  And, we continue to develop solar cells. We have a new concept based on nano-structures, which we are developing, and I've started my second spin-off company called Solarity, which owns the intellectual property to this new idea.

The other company I started is called NanoHorizons. It grew out of my interest in nanotechnology and biology and medicine. NanoHorizons makes silver nanoparticles for antimicrobial applications. Silver is antimicrobial, the Phoenicians knew that 2500 years ago. They didn’t know why, but they noticed that water vessels that had silver coins in them were able to keep the water fresher longer. So the Phoenicians noticed this 2500 years ago, and the Romans used it, and it turns out this works because silver is antimicrobial. When a child is born they usually give the child silver nitrate drops in the eyes for the same reason-- because silver ions are antimicrobial. If you make silver in the nanoscale, you don't use very much, but it turns out to be very active as an antimicrobial agent, and it will kill viruses and bacteria.     

Q: What's the most rewarding thing about working with nanotechnology?
Fonash: Working at the nano-scale opens the door to new opportunities, In our solar cell research, for example, we are able to use nano-structures to build cells that operate more efficiently and use less material---less material means cheaper manufacturing costs. We are able to do this because of two phenomena in nature which only become important at the nano-scale. These called are photonics and plasmonics. And there are other phenomena that only become important at the nano-scale which other groups are exploiting for similar advancements in products.

Q: Is there an example you can provide that shows how something you’ve worked on has positively impacted the world?
 I think my book on solar cell device physics has had a very positive impact. The first edition came out in 1981 and it and the new edition have been very, very well received and used around the world. And I think the other thing I can point to is our AMPS computer program has been extremely well received. This program is used all over the world to analyze and design solar cells, detectors, and other devices. I encouraged the university to allow the AMPS source code to be downloaded free by other people, and so now the AMPS program has evolved. The University of Illinois just put out the newest version of it about 3 months ago---and they too are following our example and making this evolved version available free to the scientific and engineering community to speed up development. I also think I've made contributions in electronics---especially to what is called plasma based processing--but my book and AMPS are my proudest contributions. If I jump to education, I'm really proud of what I've done with workforce development. I really think it's a positive contribution. Getting universities interested with partnering with community colleges was not easy, but I'm very glad we've got the program going---and going now across the US. I believe the sharing approach makes economic and education sense for the country.

Q: What do you think is the single greatest impact nanotechnology has had on the world thus far?  
Fonash: I think the greatest contributions will lie in medicine and we’re starting to see the beginnings of that. I think that nanotechnology is already contributing to MRI imaging, and it's already contributing to cancer therapies -- there are several therapies that are FDA approved and in use clinically. And you could say electronics is really nanoelectronics today. If transistors weren’t built at the nanoscale, we wouldn’t have all the functionality and memory that we have. But I think the greatest impact will be in medicine.

Q: Please give an example of what you envision nanotechnology applications leading to in the future. 
As I noted earlier, nanotechnology is going to contribute greatly to medicine. Looking at other areas, it will also contribute significantly to energy production and energy conservation. Our solar cell work that I mentioned shows just one way nanotechnology can affect energy production. And the growing impact of nanotechnology on catalysis will affect energy conservation and conservation in general—it will mean less expensive processes and less polluting manufacturing processes.

Q: Do you find yourself working more in a team situation, or more alone?
Fonash: Both. I work alone when ideas come to me, and I think about the ideas, but I inherently have a team—a group of graduate students and postdocs, and I like the team approach for two reasons. One, I like to hear their opinions on the ideas and on whether they think I’m wrong or right. The team can fix things and tell me what's better -- and they often do. And the other thing is, a team gives you more brains and more hands---so more can be done in a day. When I work with my students or postdocs, it's a very intense and fun interaction.    

Q: If you work more as a team, what are some of the other areas of expertise of your team members?   
Fonash: The graduate student and post-doctoral personnel in our team come from a variety of backgrounds. Right now the people in the team come from electrical engineering, physics, chemistry, bio-engineering, computer science, and material science. Nanotechnology is inherently interdisciplinary and teams with varied compositions like ours are common. 

Q: Did your university training help you in your nanotechnology work?
Oh sure, because my university training was in basic physics and chemistry and math -- so absolutely. I'm a product of old-fashioned STEM education, and you can't beat knowing the basic principles, I believe. I think the big take-away from university education is basic training in physics, chemistry, biology, math, and the development of the idea of questioning everything – of being curious. And I think that's a very big part of university education. I try to convey that to the graduate students and undergraduates that I teach. Question everything. You may look at something in a different way, and make a contribution. The example I always think of is suitcases. 30 years ago everybody lugged a suitcase around. Somebody finally came up with the idea of putting wheels on suitcases. Thank goodness that that person knew about the wheel and stuck it on there. So I think it's a question of having a really good education -- in the case of an engineer or scientist -- in biology, math, chemistry, and physics…and being very curious and questioning.

Q: Do you have a mentor?  Did you in your college years?
Fonash: I think my #1 mentor was my father. He was an engineer, always curious, always doing things differently. He always liked to figure out how to do something differently. At the undergraduate level, I had a professor who I admired and was very good. And, going back to high school, I had a high school chemistry teacher who was very good.  He was a bit eccentric, but was also very curious and very good. That might turn some kids off because they thought he was strange -- and I thought he was strange -- but I liked that he looked at things differently. In college, I had many professors who I sort of subconsciously wanted to emulate. But I think my #1 mentor was my father.

Q: If you had to do it all over again, would you still focus on nanotechnology applications?
Oh, definitely. But, if I had to do it over again, I would probably take more biology along with the physics and chemistry.

Q: What advice do you have for pre-university students?
Well, let me talk in general terms, I think they need to try to learn as much as possible about nanotechnology. The internet is one place…and I think you should read as much as you can. I think there are a lot of things universities are doing to try to get information out. Talk to your high school teachers -- but be aware that they may not be too knowledgeable in nanotechnology and in all it can do. Remember that when you go to a university, you're not going to get into nanotechnology right away -- you're going to get into the basic STEM courses. But at your university or college, look around at the faculty and see who's doing what -- and talk to them. Most of them will be willing to talk to you, and they may have jobs for undergraduates in the summer, or even during the semester, where you can learn more. It's not like anyone's going to hand it to you, you have to go out and look.