Designing destiny: Iowa students use microfabrication to improve future


If you haven't heard of microfabrication (or nanofabrication) prior to today, don't worry -- neither had I.

But the fact is, whether you've heard about it or not, microfabrication still impacts you. And in a pretty major way.

Do you use a cell phone? A computer? Ever visit a hospital?

If so, you've benefited from the cutting edge industry of microfabrication.

Microfabrication is essentially a combination of carving and printing on an incredibly small scale.

While a woodworker may carve out an ornate design using tools, in the case of microfabrication, a machine uses light (specifically an electron beam) to imprint designs up to 10,000 smaller than a single strand of human hair onto a silicon material.

On the University of Iowa's campus, students and faculty have access to a rare and expensive ($2 million) machine called the Raith Voyager. Only a handful of Hawkeye students know how to use the fancy printer, one of only three in the United States (and the only one in the Midwest).

As Russell Ricker, a graduate student at Iowa, explains, this has less to do with ability and more to do with perception, and lack of interest based on perception.

"I think people are worried about the scope of knowledge needed to use this machine, when in reality, it's a step-by-step process that isn't that hard to learn," said Ricker.

The University of Iowa held an open house to show attendees what the advanced technology laboratories are up to, and naturally, the Raith Voyager was a crowd favorite.

Faculty hope the tour of their lab will create traction and interest for young folks, as the field of microfabrication aims for expansion.

Microfabrication assists in the functionality of computers and smartphones, allowing for smaller processing units and creating room for things like larger batteries.

"The sky's the limit with this technology," said Aju Jugessur, the director of the microfabrication facility at the University of Iowa.

He explains the Raith Voyager's potential isn't limited to simply technology, but has the ability to permeate virtually any industry, including medicine, with stents for blood clots and highly sanitized scalpels for exams.

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