Illuminating discovery

Texas Instruments Distinguished University Chair in Nanoelectronics lights the way with marketable research

By Herb Booth

Think of researcher Robert Magnusson as a painter. 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.

In September Dr. Magnusson was named the Texas Instruments Distinguished University Chair in Nanoelectronics at UT Arlington. It’s a homecoming for the gifted professor, 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 TI 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.

Robert Magnusson

Dr. Magnusson’s nanoelectronics research has applications in lasers, sensors and solar cells. “Our plan is to pursue commercialization of the best ideas,” he says.

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 said. “What this means in drug discovery is that you have results in minutes instead of hours or days.”

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

"There is a new paradigm on campuses all over the world. It involves entrepreneurship in addition to teaching, research and service."

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.

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

“We’ve almost reached the limits of how many switches we can pack onto a piece of silicon. What were two or three switches on a single substrate is now billions and billions,” Ritter said. “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.”

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 and hope to take what Magnusson, Wawro and their team of engineers develop to the marketplace.

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.

“This is y’all’s company,” the Iceland native said in his best Texas drawl. “Our plan is to pursue commercialization of the best ideas.”

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 said. “It involves entrepreneurship in addition to teaching, research and service.” Magnusson will wear all four hats.

He hopes to invent 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.

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