Semiconductor Research Corporation (USA)
Durham, North Carolina, United States
- Ph. D. in Physics from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (Russia)
- M. S. in Applied Physics from the Ural Polytechnic Institute (Russia)
“I manage fundamental and exploratory research programs in nanoelectronics.”
Advice to Students:
“Take the hard stuff first, i.e., Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry. This will enable you to master any profession. Indeed, you can learn much more readily when you are 17 than when you are 27.”
Q: When did you first find that your career path focused on nanotechnology?
Zhirnov: In 1992 I started my research on ultra sharp nanoneedles with only a few atoms on the tip. We used these tiny things to generate intensive beams of electrons. We also grew diamond nanoparticles on the tip of the needles, and used these structures in flat-screen displays.
Q: What current nanotechnology applications are you working on?
Q: What’s the most rewarding thing about working with nanotechnology?
Zhirnov: 1. Discovering the Unknown; 2. The opportunity to ask questions whose answers might change the world.
Q: Is there an example you can provide that shows how something you’ve worked on has positively impacted the world?
Zhirnov: In the 1990s I worked in the area of flat-screen displays. Today, flat-sreen TVs and computers are everywhere. My current work in the area of physics of nanotechnology that has influenced the world’s understanding of how small the electronic devices could be and still work.
Q: What do you think is the single greatest impact nanotechnology has had on the world thus far?
Zhirnov: Nanotechnology has already become real in semiconductor chips. The iPhone has nanotechnology inside.
Q: Please give an example of what you envision nanotechnology applications leading to in the future.
Zhirnov: Imagine an ‘Electronic Cell’ whose function is, upon injection into the body, to interact with living cells, e.g. determine the state of the living cell and to support certain “therapeutic” action. Such a microsystem should be on the order of the size of a living cell, which is about ten microns. The Electronic Cell must have the capability to collect data on the living cell, it must analyze the data and make a decision; it must communicate with an external computer; and take corrective action if needed. What is the smallest functional electronic system that nanotechnology might ultimately enable? Could we someday build a cube ten microns on a side that would exploit atomic-size to determine the health of living cells? These questions are one of the focuses of my current work.
Q: Do you find yourself working more in a team situation, or more alone?
Zhirnov: Team work is one of key enablers of my work. I enjoy working with the team of world-class professionals in my company. Also the very nature of the field promotes topical teaming of intellectuals across the world. Just in the past few years we have formed topical teams with colleagues in Germany, Columbia, and Singapore. Traveling around the globe is sometimes tiresome, but it is extremely rewarding.
Q: If you work more as a team, what are some of the other areas of expertise of your team members?
Zhirnov: Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Electrical Engineering, Materials Science, Computer Science, Biomedical Sciences.
Q: Did your university training help you in your nanotechnology work?
Zhirnov: Yes, both my university and also high school training is helping a lot. In fact, it is almost embarrassing to admit that in many cases when I am analyzing complex problems I use knowledge that I learned in high school. Perhaps this is because at that time, I really digested the knowledge and made it highly accessible for my mind. Thanks to the fundamental foundations I received in the high school and in the college, I have no fear of working in a new area– I can enter it and quickly learn to contribute.
Q: Do you have a mentor? Did you in your college years?
Zhirnov: Yes, I do have a mentor now (Dr. Ralph Cavin, SRC’s Chief Scientist), and I had several mentors in my college years.
Q: If you had to do it all over again, would you still focus on nanotechnology applications?
Q: What advice do you have for pre-university students?
Zhirnov: Take the hard stuff first, i.e., Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry. This will enable you to master any profession. Indeed, you can learn much more readily when you are 17 than when you are 27. If you master in Physics and Math early, these analytical tools help you even if you later become a lawyer, a doctor, a journalist or a diplomat. However, without these basic skills, it is difficult to enter into the science and engineering professions.