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April 2: Carnegie Mellon Researcher Wins Career Award From National Science Foundation


Chriss Swaney

Carnegie Mellon Researcher Wins Prestigious
Career Award From National Science Foundation    

PITTSBURGH—Carnegie Mellon University's C. Fred Higgs III has received the National Science Foundation's most prestigious honor for new faculty members, the Faculty Early Career Development Award.     

C. Fred HiggsHiggs, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, will receive a five-year, $400,000 grant to develop sophisticated computer models that can predict wearing problems on a variety of surfaces, including materials used in semiconductor and data storage devices, in addition to hip and knee replacements.     

Surfaces under stress rub together, causing friction. Higgs' research aims to determine how abrasive nanoparticles cause this friction and surface wear, and what kinds of detailed experiments and computational models are effective at predicting these tribological phenomena. The study of friction, lubrication and wear is called tribology.

"With the growth in computational power, we believe these types of tribology problems can be predicted and we can ultimately understand how nanoparticles wear away materials, like on the surface of an artificial limb or the surface of integrated circuits used by chip manufacturers and the data storage industry," Higgs said.     

Industry analysts report that the race to produce higher-performance integrated circuits is limited today by the cost of production and the challenges faced by the traditional paradigm of making components smaller and smaller. These components are fabricated using special optical methods called lithography, which only works when the surfaces are ultra-smooth. To get these surfaces smooth, chemical mechanical planarization (CMP), a nanoparticle-based polishing process that costs the semiconductor industry billions of dollars, is employed.     

"My research could help eliminate costly material testing during CMP in the ongoing race to produce smaller and faster integrated circuits," Higgs said.     

The NSF grant will also help Higgs expand an existing interdisciplinary tribology course by adding new lab experiences and projects at Carnegie Mellon, and precollege workshops at Westinghouse High School, an urban public school with a science and math academy.     

"We hope our work will motivate more underrepresented minority students to think about earning Ph.D.s in science, technology, engineering and mathematics," Higgs said.