Sunday, May 10, 2015

Mildred Dresselhaus: The Queen of Carbon

IEEE Spectrum
By Mark Anderson
Posted

Before silicon got its own valley, this mild-mannered element had to vanquish many other contenders to prove itself the premier semiconductor technology. It did so in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, carbon is poised at a similar crossroads, with carbon-based technologies on the verge of transforming computing and boosting battery-storage capacities. Already, researchers have used these technologies to demonstrate paper-thin batteries, unbreakable touch screens, and terabit-speed wireless communications. And on the farther horizon they envision such carbon-enabled wonders as space elevators, filters that can make seawater drinkable, bionic organs, and transplantable neurons.

Whatever miracles emerge from Carbon Valley, its carbon-tech titans will surely think fondly upon their field’s founding mother, Mildred Dresselhaus. This MIT professor of physics and engineering has, since the early 1960s, been laying the groundwork for networks of nanometer-scale carbon sheets, lattices, wires, and switches. Future engineers will turn these things, fabricated from carbon-based materials such as graphene, into the systems that will carry computing into its next era.

Now, after a half century of quiet work, she is accumulating accolades. This past November, in a ceremony at the White House, President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the U.S. government’s highest civilian honor. “Her influence is all around us, in the cars we drive, the energy we generate, the electronic devices that power our lives,” Obama said.

And this June, the IEEE will confer upon Dresselhaus its highest accolade, the IEEE Medal of Honor, for her “leadership and contributions across many fields of science and engineering.” She is the first female Medal of Honor recipient in the award’s nearly century-long history. (Before the IEEE’s formation, the Medal of Honor was presented by the Institute of Radio Engineers, which merged with the American Institute of Electrical Engineers in 1963 to form the IEEE.)
 

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