A 22-year faculty member at Vanderbilt University, Richard Haglund began working with vanadium dioxide in 2000 when an enterprising graduate student, Ren� Lopez, asked himself whether the compound might change its behavior when its dimensions were reduced to a few millionths of a millimeter.
When heated gently, vanadium dioxide is transformed from a relatively transparent semiconductor to a metal.
A larger research project involving Professors Leonard Feldman and Charles Lukehart at Vanderbilt and Michael Aziz at Harvard was soon designed based on Lopez' work, and was funded by the National Science Foundation.
"It was kind of miraculous," Haglund says. "The proposal was funded on the first try."
However, the closing of a specialized materials fabrication facility at Oak Ridge soon forced Vanderbilt to develop its own vanadium dioxide synthesis using the new nanofabrication laboratory in the University's Institute for Nanoscale Science and Engineering.
Since the publication of Lopez's first papers in 2002, work has continued with other students that includes drilling holes smaller than the wavelength of light in vanadium dioxide films to make ultrafast optical switches. After more than a year of vigorous discussion, students and faculty now believe they understand how the switching effect works.
"At the frontiers of science and engineering, the answer isn't in the back of a book somewhere," Haglund says.
What makes vanadium dioxide so promising is it can make the transition from semiconductor to metal in less than a trillionth of a second. Several companies that manufacture energy-management coatings for windows, as well as firms that want to make fast-switching optical and electronic devices, are interesting in taking what the Vanderbilt researchers have found to the industrial market.
As work continues and the future of the technology takes shape, Haglund sees his role not as a business developer, but as a mentor for graduate students who determine where their research direction lies.
"My job is to nurture that quality and guide them, but not kill that entrepreneurial spirit," he says.