Despite earning a $431,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study semiconductors, Duquesne University associate chemistry professor Dr. Jennifer Aitken has no delusion that her research team will find the next important synthetic material to hit the markets.
"The odds are that we won't find the next best material," said Aitken. "More people fail than will succeed."
However, she says her team will be adding to the knowledge base of how to create new and better semiconductors. A semiconductor is a material that only conducts electricity with help from an outside influence.
"It's not a conductor under normal conditions, but when you heat it up, or you expose it to the right energy, you can make the material conduct," said Aitken. She said the materials are found in many types of popular electronics, as well as military and industrial applications.
The chemist said she starts creating a new semiconductor by looking at the unique properties or attributes she wants the material to have.
"We're looking for magnetic semiconductors, or semiconductors with special optical properties, and also semiconductors with what's called thermo-electric properties," said Aitken. "[Thermo-electrics] can be used in one of two ways: either as solid-state refrigerants, or they can also be used to harness waste energy and turn it into electricity."
From there, Aitken predicts which elements she'll need to combine to get those properties. Once the chemicals are all put together into tiny crystals, she uses an X-Ray to refract light off of them in order to gauge whether or not the material ended up with the desired attributes.
While she may not make the next important semiconductor material, Aitken said the experience of creating never before seen materials is special for her team of eight Duquesne students and a post-doctoral researcher.
"At the end of the day, when you don't make the next best semiconductor, you've learned a scientific lesson, but also the other important part is you've educated the next generation of scientists in this field."