Professor of Electrical Engineering
Chair, Materials Science and Engineering
University of California, Riverside
Materials Science and Engineering Program
Nano-Device Laboratory (NDL)
Riverside, CA, USA
- M.S., Applied Physics, Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology
- M.S., Electrical Engineering, University of Notre Dame
- Ph.D., Electrical Engineering, University of Notre Dame
Balandin conducts experimental and theoretical nanotechnology-related research in the Nano-Device Laboratory, which he organized in 2000.
Advice to Students:
“The advice I have to the kids who are in high schools now is the following – go to an engineering field and then get an advanced degree – MS or better PhD.”
Q: When did you first find that your career path focused on nanotechnology?
Balandin: I first started focusing on nanotechnology in 1993, when I joined the University of Notre Dame as a graduate student. Before that, back in Moscow, I was working on electromagnetics. When I came to the U.S., I was given a choice: I can continue electromagnetics, or I can switch to a different topic, and the different topic was nanotechnology and nanostructures — quantum wires more specifically.
Q: What current nanotechnology applications are you working on?
Balandin:My most recent research activities are focused on graphene and its device applications. Graphene is a single atomic layer of carbon atoms. We’re trying to use graphene for building low-noise, high-frequency transistors, and for creating highly thermally conductive composites, which could be used as thermal interface materials to take heat away from electronic circuits. We also work with a new materials system called the topological insulator. I got into the topological insulators field almost accidentally because my original motivation was different. I suggested my student to exfoliate bismuth telluride – a layered thermoelectric material by following graphene analogy. When he succeeded in this task we realized that these structures, with nanometer thickness, can also work as topological insulators, which were just discovered. I have also worked with quantum dots, using them for solar cells and thermoelectric applications. My group members continue these activities.
Q: What’s the most rewarding thing about working with nanotechnology?
Balandin: It’s rewarding because it combines physics with technology. To me, physics is a more fun thing to do, and at the same time, technology is more a practical thing to do. It’s also easier to get funding by talking about practical applications in technology rather than talking about fun physics things.
Q: Is there an example you can provide that shows how something you’ve worked on has positively impacted the world?
Balandin: I believe I have positively impacted the world by producing very good PhD graduates, who became happy people. After they graduated with PhDs they found excellent high-paying jobs, with very secure employment.
Q: What do you think is the single greatest impact nanotechnology has had on the world thus far?
Balandin: An answer to this question depends on the definition of nanotechnology that you use. In terms of conventional technology, which is silicon CMOS, nanotechnology is everywhere in computer chips since about 2000. That’s because the common definition of nanotechnology is technology which deals with structures 100 nm or smaller, along at least one dimension. In the new generation of CMOS transistors, the feature size is already 22 nanometers. In this sense, nanotechnology is in computers, cell-phones and other common applications. That is the single greatest impact so far.
Q: Please give an example of what you envision nanotechnology applications leading to in the future.
Balandin: I would like to mention non-conventional technology — when you go from bottom-up or self-assembly — this technology is still in development. I believe it will have a big impact on energy. Energy is a major issue — particularly renewable energy. We do have technology for producing energy through photovoltaic solar cells and thermoelectric devices, but we’re not using them very widely. Why? That is because the efficiency of the photovoltaic or thermoelectric energy conversion is very low. This efficiency is determined by the materials we use. With nanotechnology one can tailor properties of materials, e.g., the way how light interacts with a material, or the way how electrons interact with phonons – quanta of lattice vibrations that carry heat. That is where I believe will be the greatest impact of nanotechnology. Medical applications will be impacted as well, but I’m not an expert in medical field to give specific examples.
Q: Do you find yourself working more in a team situation, or more alone?
Balandin: For my own work, and for my students, I’m always trying to find a balance between individual and teamwork. I keep telling my students that research output of our group has to be bigger than the sum of the individual outputs. I always tell them to talk to each other and help with each other’s projects. But at the end of the day, there should be one person who takes the lead.
Q: If you work more as a team, what are some of the other areas of expertise of your team members?
Balandin: In my case, it is somewhat unusual, because I personally do both theory and experiment. As for my group members, many of them have a particular focus, one is better at cleanroom, another is better at thermal measurements, someone else is better at microscopy. What I am trying to do is make them all to have some exposure to various experimental techniques. Moreover, when they’re doing experimental research, I push them to at least do some simulation, using commercial tools adopted by industry. I am trying to improve their marketability for a future job while giving them a broader outlook.
Q: Did your university training help you in your nanotechnology work?
Balandin: My undergraduate experience at Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT) was very helpful. That was a really great institution where we had a lot of fundamental studies, which at that time I may not have appreciated fully. Now I understand how important it was. Learning fundamentals allows you later on in your career to switch the topics. Once you understand the fundamentals, you can relatively quickly learn whatever is new out there. Right now there is an unfortunate tendency in the U.S. and other countries to do narrow specialization. Sometimes students come to graduate schools with huge gaps in their fundamental knowledge. It is hard to do research in semiconductor nanostructures if you do not know solid state physics and quantum mechanics. Even at the graduate level, students sometimes don’t know math; they don’t know how to take an integral. If you don’t have fundamental education, it is a huge problem.
Q: Do you have a mentor? Did you in your college years?
Balandin: I had mentors, but maybe not early enough that would have strongly helped me. As a result, I had to do extra steps and fluctuate more, instead of turning to someone who might have helped right away. Now I understand how important it is to have a mentor. The advice for students – get one!
Q: If you had to do it all over again, would you still focus on nanotechnology applications?
Balandin: I don’t know. It’s hard to tell, but likely yes. Although my mom believed I had more potential in humanitarian fields – literature or theater. My early high school years had other factors which people may not have now.
Q: What advice do you have for pre-university students?
Balandin: For me, at some point in high school I started to read a lot of science fiction. I was excited by science fiction, space exploration, and I read many books. Science fiction stimulated my interest to physics, and from physics I started to be more serious about mathematics. In Russia we had correspondence schools, which were usually organized by universities. While studying in high school, I passed entrance exams to the MIPT correspondence school and got exposure to much more complicated mathematics and physics problems and homework assignments. This experience helped me a great deal and prepared for university education.
The advice I have to the kids who are in high schools now is the following – go to an engineering field and then get an advanced degree – MS or better PhD.
I would also suggest looking at the specializations, which for some reason, are not emphasized well enough in this country. A good example is materials science and engineering (MS&E) degree. Traditionally, people know about electrical engineering, computer science, and mechanical engineering. Most people, when they think about a space station or a cell phone they think of electrical engineering. However in the core of all high-tech things are materials.
When planning the education, I would encourage students to think about what job they are going to have. I have friends whose kids are at colleges now. Very often when I ask the kids or their parents what kind of job they will have with a degree is some very-fancy-major they selected, they have trouble to answer.