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Applied science researcher wins thin-film award

  • In the labVMEC Associate Professor Ale Lukaszew (left) works with Cesar Clavero, a post-doctoral research associate in applied science, in their lab in McGlothlin-Street Hall. Clavero says that the aluminum foil covering parts of their vacuum pump makes an excellent insulator. He recently won an Outstanding Young Researcher Award from the American Vacuum Society.

    In the lab

César Clavero, a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Applied Science, has been named the recipient of the 2008 Outstanding Young Researcher Award from the American Vacuum Society.

Clavero's award comes from the Thin Film Division of the society, in recognition of his work on magneto-plasmonic materials with Ale Lukaszew, VMEC Associate Professor in Physics and Applied Science. The award will be presented at the AVS international meeting to be held Oct. 19-24 in Boston.

Clavero and Lukaszew combine gold and cobalt in ultra-thin films in an effort to obtain materials with optimal optical and magnetic qualities for potential use in biosensors or other nanotech applications.

"An important aspect of this is that the materials are in thin film form," Lukaszew said.  "It requires specific training. You need to be trained in ultra-high vacuum technology, thin film growth and characterization. So, it's not just a question of mixing materials; it's a question of mixing them right so that they have the optimum optical and structural properties."

The films they're working with are in the 20-nanometer range. "A nanometer is one billionth of a meter," Clavero explained. "One nanometer is like three atoms on top of each other. So we're talking about something that's just a few atoms thick."

Their work has several components. Much of it is done on the third floor of McGlothlin-Street Hall in an ultra high vacuum chamber, but they also have an instrument at the Applied Research Center in Newport News, custom-built by Clavero and two other graduate students in Lukaszew’s group, J. Skuza and K. Yang. It's a laser-driven device that allows the researchers to record very, very precise angular measurements of the optical characteristics of their samples.

Clavero and Lukaszew not only grow the cobalt-gold films, but also characterize them—evaluate their optical, structural, magnetic and morphological properties. In addition to the lab work, Clavero constructs mathematical models of these films, striving to produce a material with the optimum characteristics.

"Much of the thought going on in nanotechnology is related to the search for new properties that arise from confining materials into very small dimensions," Lukaszew explained. "With this particular material, we're concerned with plasmons—energy oscillations that occur when light strikes it and how this affects its magneto-optical properties. The effect you are looking for occurs at a very, very specific thickness of material."