In a laboratory buried deep inside Fitzpatrick Hall of Engineering, Notre Dame students are fabricating sophisticated computer chips. Not advanced graduate students, but undergraduates. And what they’re fabricating are not just simple logic gates, but a complex microprocessor with as many as 3,000 transistors.
“We’re making real chips,” declares Gary H. Bernstein, professor and associate chair of electrical engineering. “If you told someone at IBM, Intel or Motorola that the ones doing it are undergraduate students at a university, I think they would be very impressed. What we’re doing, to my knowledge, is just not done at other universities.”
Bernstein’s approach to teaching and research is something else not typically found at other universities either. When he was doing graduate work elsewhere, he could hardly help being aware of the normal pattern: Research shaped the courses. “I thought the right way to do it is to make a really good course and then figure out what research would have to do with that.” So he set about designing courses and creating a microelectronics lab to support them.
That was 12 years ago. Today, he’s part of a group of faculty in electrical engineering and computer science and engineering whose courses are available to students in both departments. “We are careful about how each course relates to the rest so that students learn all aspects of integrated circuit design and then processing.”
Small is better in nanoelectronics. Bernstein’s research specialty is using electron beam lithography to etch circuitry on semiconductor materials. Beyond that, he’s part of a group of Notre Dame researchers exploring something known as Quantum-dot Cellular Automata, QCA for short, that holds promise of a new generation of computational devices whose “chips” are the size of molecules and whose “transistors” are electrons.
Another focus of his research is microfluidics, whose goal is “to do chemistry on a chip” by designing microscopic pumps and fluid channels. One expected outcome of this research — cheap, fast diagnostic testing devices that use very small amounts of a patient’s body fluids — is attracting interest from the pharmaceutical industry.
But it’s the fabrication lab that is Bernstein’s proudest creation: “I don’t know how many people have the opportunity to launch a plan that lasts for decades and then watch that plan unfolding, year after year. This is very satisfying for me.”