Professor’s Research May Lead to Faster, More Powerful Computers

By Danica Fisher ’05, March 23, 2021
Physics Professor receives National Science Foundation grant to support research involving undergraduates.

As technology has advanced over the last five decades, the number of transistors on a silicon computer chip has nearly doubled every two years. That trend can’t continue forever, though, according to Physics Professor Matthew C. Sullivan, who says you can’t keep making things smaller indefinitely—there’s a size limit, due to quantum physics.

Sullivan and his research partners are looking for alternative methods to increase computing power, and they have received a $196,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support their work, which will involve undergraduate students at Ithaca College and SUNY Brockport.

“Increasing computer power, it’s going to fail soon, and that’s why people are looking to other ways to improve computer circuits,” says Sullivan. “That's why people started to try and mimic how the brain works, because the brain is a far more powerful computing engine than almost anything we have on earth.”

Sullivan and his team will be studying thin films of niobium oxide for use in neuromorphic circuits, which seek to replicate the functioning of the brain. The project’s goal is to develop niobium oxide-based electronic components that can seamlessly integrate with current state-of-the-art silicon-based electronics. 

“If we do this right and our researchers are successful, we will actually increase computing power and the number of calculations per second while at the same time reducing electrical power consumption.” 

Physics Professor Matthew C. Sullivan

Sullivan plans to study the electrical characterization of niobium oxide and how it behaves electronically.

“If we do this right and our researchers are successful, we will actually increase computing power and the number of calculations per second while at the same time reducing electrical power consumption,” says Sullivan.

Sullivan says they are looking for a switching behavior in these materials that would mimic the behavior of neurons switching on and off in your brain.

“If you can get this switching behavior, you can basically get signals to travel forward through the rest of the circuit, or not, depending on whether or not it switches,” says Sullivan. “That’s what we’re looking for and that’s why these are being used in what are called neuromorphic circuits, where they’re trying to get around the limitations of our current circuitry.”

The research project includes a team from Ithaca College and SUNY Brockport, as well as collaborators from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. Part of the money from the grant will be used to send students to the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory to see how these materials are made and to bring some back to Ithaca College.  Once in Ithaca, students will use the Cornell Nanofabrication Science and Technology Facility, a world class clean room, to turn the films into electrical devices for measurement at Ithaca College.

Sullivan says he is always looking to provide students with hands-on research experiences.

“That’s why I wanted to leave Intel and come to Ithaca College to teach, so I could provide these opportunities to students,” he says. “The most important thing about the grant to me is the fact that I’ll be able to fund student salaries over the summer and send students to conferences.”

The grant will also be used to support the expansion of current local outreach programs, where IC students present scientific demonstrations and activities to local schools. Lastly, the grant will help generate new YouTube videos on the Ithaca College Physics YouTube channel.

This summer Sullivan will start his research by figuring out how to turn the niobium oxide films into the electrical devices he needs in order to measure them.