Research Magazine 2006
Spectrum of discovery

Success is no optical illusion for Robert Magnusson, whose nanoelectronics research could herald breakthroughs in drug analysis, medical devices and solar cells.

Imagine watching an artist paint. But instead of a brush, he uses light. And instead of a canvas, he uses thin film. Then he introduces elements onto that high-tech canvas and measures how the light changes them.

Robert Magnusson is such an artist.

Last fall he was named the Texas Instruments Distinguished University Chair in Nanoelectronics at UT Arlington. It’s a homecoming for the gifted researcher, who was a UT Arlington faculty member from 1984-2001 and chaired the Electrical Engineering Department in the College of Engineering from 1998-2001.

The $5 million endowed chair includes $1 million from Texas Instruments and $1 million from UT Arlington for the $2 million permanent endowment. Additional funding includes $2.5 million from the state’s Emerging Technology Fund and $500,000 from the UT System.

Dr. Magnusson

Using thin film and light, Dr. Robert Magnusson can measure biochemical reactions in real time, which greatly reduces the wait for drug test results.

Dr. Magnusson earned the endowed chair by developing a new class of nanostructured photonic devices with applications in lasers, sensors, solar cells and display technology. Moreover, his work may impact the interface between light and electronic circuits through a new research field called nanoplasmonics. Current efforts focus on commercialization of new biosensor platforms for drug discovery and medical diagnostics based on these inventions.

“We can measure these biochemical reactions on this thin film. You monitor in real time how fast those chemical interactions occur and how much material has reacted,” he says. “What this means in drug discovery is that you have results in minutes instead of waiting hours, or days.”

The method Magnusson and his team are perfecting quantifies the entire reaction, which is intricate but, he says, measurable.

A biosensor system takes a biological sample and places it on a grid. For example, if a diabetic’s blood sample is placed on that grid, the way light reacts with it could detect the blood sugar or insulin level. The way light interacts with a sample could give researchers more detailed information about the chemical makeup, enabling discoveries in medicine and drug development.

“There is a new paradigm on campuses all over the world. It involves entrepreneurship in addition to teaching, research and service. Some of the more progressive universities now consider entrepreneurship in tenure and promotion decisions.”

The semiconductor industry is also anxiously awaiting potential breakthroughs from Magnusson’s research. Phil Ritter, former Texas Instruments senior vice president of public affairs, says nanoelectronics is critical to the industry’s future.

“We’ve almost reached the limits of how many switches we can pack onto a piece of silicon. You know Jack Kilby invented the first chip 50 years ago this month [September 2008],” Ritter said at a ceremony announcing Magnusson’s appointment. “What were two or three switches on a single substrate are now billions and billions, but there are physical limits as to how much more we can do. Nanoelectronics holds the future as to what the semiconductor industry and what advanced microelectronics will look like. And that’s the kind of research that will be going on here. We have a great interest in that.”

Besides his research and engineering know-how, Magnusson brings keen business acumen to the professorship.

He has co-founded two companies, Resonant Optics Inc. and Resonant Sensors Inc. UT Arlington alumna Debra Wawro, a former student of Magnusson’s, is co-founder and an inventor of the biosensor technology under development at RSI. She has led RSI and ROI from the beginning as chief executive officer. The companies have acquired several patents on processes, equipment and knowledge built in the lab. The companies hope to take what Magnusson, Wawro and their team of engineers develop in the lab to the marketplace.

“Part of what we do will be to see where these tools, devices and procedures fit in the marketplace,” says Wawro, who has been Magnusson’s business partner since 2004. “Seeing our technology go to market is exciting, but we hope it translates into something that really helps people.”

In 2007 RSI received $600,000 from the state’s Emerging Technology Fund for research and development. The ETF exists to spur commercialization for certain scientific ideas that have yet to make the trek to market. Magnusson says the investment in RSI makes the state, the UT System and UT Arlington stakeholders in the research interests and anything that comes from that partnership.

“We plan to pursue commercialization of the best ideas,” he says.

He lists drug discovery, diagnostics, medical devices, homeland security and solar cells as potential applications of the research. But while theoretical work will push these applications through the research pipeline, commercialization is what makes the research tangible.

“There is a new paradigm on campuses all over the world,” he says. “It involves entrepreneurship in addition to teaching, research and service. Some of the more progressive universities now consider entrepreneurship in tenure and promotion decisions.” Magnusson will wear all four hats.

Provost Donald Bobbitt says the endowed chair and research that will come from it show the University taking a leadership role in nanotechnology. Ron Elsenbaumer, vice president for research and federal relations, says the University works to improve society through science, technology, medical diagnostics and health care initiatives.

“Our focus is to have more ideas, more discoveries and more disclosure from faculty and students,” he says.

That’s exactly what Magnusson is after: inventing something so revolutionary that it rocks not just the nanoelectronics field, but the world. And he plans to do it through his tiny palette of thin film, light and nanotechnology.

In Magnusson’s case, engineering and science are art.

- Herb Booth