The current generation of silicon chips can carry features such as etched circuits about 100 nanometers in size, or roughly one-tenth the diameter of a human hair. But in the effort to make computers and other electronic devices ever smaller, lighter and more powerful, the circuits and the chemical tools that make them require increasingly finer control.
"What happens then is the individual molecules on the surface [of the chips] have more and more influence," said Buriak, an inorganic chemist and professor at Purdue University. "For example, the silicon dioxide coating that has worked very well for the last 40 years is actually imperfect on a molecular scale -- and as devices get smaller and smaller the electrons that leak may degrade a signal or even cause a short circuit."
Instead of trying to find a better coating, Buriak and her research team are skirting the problem entirely: they are designing methods to attach the molecular features and their interface with the device to the chip itself.
"That approach allows the electrons to talk directly, such as to biological molecules," she said. "Our technology has been licensed to a company for in vivo [live] drug delivery -- it might interface directly with the brain, for example."
One might also attach molecular wires, the nanoscale versions of wires that currently require hundreds of thousands of molecules to transmit a signal, she added.
For Buriak, who started college as a math major, it was sports that "got me connected with chemistry," she said. "I thought about medical school, but I found I had a lot of fun in undergraduate research."
Buriak received her undergraduate degree from Harvard University in 1990 and her Ph.D. from France's Universite Louis Pasteur in 1995. She is a member of the ACS divisions of inorganic, surface and colloid chemistry.