APS News

Physicists Honored with Innovation Awards

Two APS members were among the recipients of the 2001 Discover Magazine Innovation awards for their respective work in detection of land mines and a new technique for printing inorganic chips. Physicists were also honored for work in the development of a combined optical and magnetic resonance microscopy imaging technique, and for a new propulsion method for spacecraft that transforms an eight-inch magnet into a potent plasma power source.

Richard Craig, a physicist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, WA, received this year's $100,000 Christopher Columbus Foundation Award for his development of a timed neutron detector (TND) of plastic land mines, which elude conventional metal land mine detectors. His inspiration came when he attended a seminar on land mines at a nuclear technology conference in Crete, and learned that roughly 26,000 people die each year from accidentally triggering land mines, a third of them children. Craig's TND is essentially a souped-up weedwhacker, with the ends and motor lopped off and the addition of sophisticated hardware. The heart of the system is a small amount of the isotope californium 252, which emits neutrons as it decays. When the neutrons collide with the nucleus of a hydrogen atom, they slow down as they return to the TND, triggering a screen alert that a hydrogen source - most likely a mine - has been located.

Joseph Jacobson of MIT's Media Laboratory in Cambridge, MA, has focused his efforts on faster, cheaper alternatives to the current expensive, labor-intensive microfabrication process for computer chips. He has demonstrated a new technique using a "nanotectic" liquid that is part nanometer-scale crystal, part solvent. When the liquid is applied to a flexible base such as plastic, the solvent evaporates, leaving the crystal nanoparticles to form structures capable of conducting electricity. Thus far Jacobson and his team have built simple transistors, and they believe logic chips could be achieved within four years. Their most exciting development to date is the achievement of an operable MEMS motor, but Jacobson foresees a day when logic chips can be embedded in such everyday items as index cards, wallpaper and even wearable computers in clothing.