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PNNL recognized for commercializing technology

March 21, 2002 Share This!

RICHLAND, Wash. – Researchers at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have been recognized for transferring technologies that are improving inventory management, semiconductor materials and electronic flat panel displays.

The Federal Laboratory Consortium honored PNNL with three 2002 Excellence in Technology Transfer Awards for radio frequency identification tags, a molecular beam epitaxy system for semiconductor materials development and barrier coatings for flat-panel displays. The PNNL technology advances were among 26 recognized nationwide by the FLC this year. With 51 awards, PNNL has been honored by the FLC more than any other federal laboratory since the recognition program began in 1984.

Electronic displays in cell phones, handheld computers, watches and computer monitors typically are built with glass, but plastic offers the allure of thinness, ruggedness and light weight. Its use also could lead to roll-up computer screens, electronic books and even flexible displays sewn into clothing.

But there are major technical obstacles to these improvements. Water vapor and oxygen can pass through plastic and cause harm to sensitive display devices-until now. PNNL researchers found a way to make plastic virtually impermeable, which may allow plastics to replace glass in electronic displays and meet the demanding needs of new display technologies.

PNNL scientists developed an ultra-barrier coating technology that gives plastic the necessary levels of protection without affecting its clarity or other qualities. The superior barrier qualities of the coating technology are achieved by depositing multiple layers of organic and inorganic materials in stacks during a "single vacuum" production process. The stacks include a unique smoothing layer that helps cover surface flaws and prevents defects in the extremely thin coating layers.

In November 1999, Battelle, which operates PNNL for DOE, created a subsidiary to commercialize these products. Vitex Systems Inc. (http://vitexsys.com) soon attracted $15 million in investment from Mitsubishi Corp. and is bringing two products to market. Vitex still relies on staff at PNNL for technical support as the company's research and development arm.

For decades, the semiconductor industry has been able to continually increase the amount of circuitry, or computing power, on a chip while reducing its size, thereby enabling smaller, faster and better electronic products. However, a fundamental physics problem is on the horizon-the industry soon will hit a technical wall that will prevent semiconductor designers from achieving additional size reduction unless methods can be found to create cost-effective "nanoscale" semiconductors.

PNNL researchers are world leaders in advancing the state of a powerful research tool called molecular beam epitaxy, or MBE, and applying the method to new materials. MBE uses separately generated and controlled beams of atoms and molecules to deposit a thin film of crystalline material on a solid substrate.

PNNL helped Motorola Labs obtain an advanced MBE deposition and analysis system, then collaborated with Motorola researchers to understand the basic science underlying the challenge to create the next generation of semiconductor wafers.

In September 2001, Motorola announced that the MBE system and interactions with PNNL staff, combined with their own significant internal research, provided them with the information necessary to successfully combine properties of silicon with the speed and optical capabilities of high-performance compound semiconductors. Motorola plans to have silicon wafers manufactured using this new technology and produce communication devices containing circuits manufactured on these wafers.

The interactions with Motorola were prompted by a suite of MBE instruments assembled in the William R. Wiley Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, a DOE scientific user facility at PNNL. PNNL scientist Scott Chambers designed and built an MBE system in the 1990s, and his was the first of its kind in the world when it was installed in the EMSL.

The suite includes an array of innovative analytical tools normally not used by industry in MBE systems. Such tools are essential to synthesizing new electronic materials and understanding their structural and electronic properties.

Radio frequency tags are small, inexpensive tags that can be used to identify, inventory and track assets. The tags range in size from a grain of rice to a credit card, and can be encoded with detailed information.

Throughout the 1990s, PNNL engineers made significant advances in RF tag technology, creating tags that are smaller, less expensive, have up to 10 times the read range of previous tags, and can be read at relatively high rates. As a result, groups of items may be inventoried in minutes instead of days, and the exact location of a specific item can be determined at any time. In addition, full life cycle information-such as serial number, warranty information, purchase date, return for repair date and other information-can be written into the tagged items as they are read at different points in the supply chain.

In late 2000, Battelle created a new company called Wave ID to manufacture, market and distribute the RF tags developed at PNNL. Within a year, Wave ID was acquired by Alien Technology, a fast-growing California-based company with a patented technology that dramatically reduces the cost of manufacturing electronic products.

Annually, the FLC recognizes federal laboratories and their employees who have made significant contributions in transferring important federally funded technology into the private sector. The FLC is comprised of more than 700 federal laboratories and centers nationwide.

Each federal lab was permitted to submit up to three entries into the 2002 competition. All three PNNL entries won an award.

A formal ceremony honoring the winning entries will be held at the FLC's 2002 National Meeting in Little Rock, Ark., on May 8, 2002.

Business inquiries on the award-winning technologies can be directed to 1-888-375-PNNL or inquiry@pnl.gov.

Tags: EMSL

Interdisciplinary teams at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory address many of America's most pressing issues in energy, the environment and national security through advances in basic and applied science. Founded in 1965, PNNL employs 4,300 staff and has an annual budget of more than $1 billion. It is managed by Battelle for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. As the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, the Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information on PNNL, visit the PNNL News Center, or follow PNNL on Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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