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Checking for crystals

Physics lab takes quantum leap

New space allows students to help create new materials for super-fast electronics

Contact: Gary H. Piatek

​Central Michigan University physics faculty member Junjie Yang likens himself to a farmer.

But instead of growing food, he is growing materials to power next-generation electronics and industry — and to empower CMU students to be the next leaders in those fields.


Specifically, Yang is growing crystals from atoms, using physics and chemistry. His immediate goal is to create crystals that would be used to replace the current silicon wafers in computers and other electronics, making them much faster with greater memory.

His dream is to grow new materials that would enable the control of both their electric and magnetic properties and operate at room temperature. 

“That would be a breakthrough,” said Christopher Tycner, physics chair. He believes CMU is on the right path.

"The future belongs to those who can grow materials that don't exist in nature, and CMU is on the leading edge." — Christopher Tycner, physics department chair

CMU hired Yang nearly a year ago to do this innovative research and gave him the resources to create a new lab in the Dow Science Complex. He is putting finishing touches on the lab this summer.

Part of the lab is used to grow crystals with no imperfections and whose atoms align perfectly so the energy flow remains constant. Another part tests them under extreme temperatures and pressure, such as minus 456 degrees Fahrenheit and 145 tons per square inch.

If it passes the quality tests here, the sample is taken to a national lab, such as Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to test it for flaws with a neutron beam.

The future belongs to those who can grow materials that don’t exist in nature, and CMU is on the leading edge,” Tycner said. “Think next-generation memory chips, sensors and circuits.”

That means today’s CMU students can be involved in cutting-edge research. Phoenix Jones, a junior from Detroit majoring in physics, is one of them.

Jones wanted to be involved in research and development and joined the lab after hearing Yang lecture on materials science and learning about his lab.

“He’s given me a lot of experience that I can take into my future,” Jones said. “Realistically, I want to use all the things I’ve learned to do in his lab to get a job, and I have no doubt I will.”

Tycner agrees.

“For a student to be involved in potentially breakthrough research in materials science is an extraordinary opportunity,” Tycner said. “Yang’s students will have the experience that will open doors for them in industry.”

Yang also is a member of CMU’s research-intensive interdisciplinary science of advanced materials program involving physics, chemistry and engineering.

Computer chip maker Intel has hired students from the program right out of CMU, Tycner said.

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