Professor, Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Houston
Glossy high speed computers and other electronics are a part of everyday life. But without semi-conductor processing, an iPod would not be more than an elegant plastic case. Pitt alumnus Vincent Donnelly is one of the key developers of plasma processing and etching, making this technology possible and modern life easier.
“I had the opportunity to work on my PhD at Pitt with Fred Kaufman, which was an incredible opportunity,” says Donnelly. “We worked on spectroscopy and kinetics problems, which provided me with a nice foundation. And I had some interesting experiences, including collaborating with NASA on a joint Apollo mission with the USSR. Most importantly it also whetted my appétit for research and attacking problems.” At the time, Kaufman’s group was at the epicenter of research initiatives to study the reactions involved in ozone depletion. “We developed the models that demonstrated what a serious problem the release of chlorine in spray cans was causing in the environment,” adds Donnelly. Donnelly’s own detailed and painstaking research opened the door on another intricate problem, the way a polyatomic molecule disposes of energy it has received, for instance by absorption of a pulse of light delivered by a laser.
After completing post-doctoral work, Donnelly began working at the prestigious Bell Labs and delved into intensive semi-conductor processing and plasma processing/etching research. “This process is used in the manufacture of integrated circuits. Circuits are manufactured layer by layer. The layers are initially delineated on a wafer; however, that layer cannot function and needs to be transferred using plasma etching,” continues Donnelly. “And with that etching process it points the way to more efficient manufacturing processes.” During his 21 years at Bell Labs, Donnelly also had the opportunity to work on compound semi-conductor lasers and protectors – things that are critical to data transmission over high speed lines. In addition, he spearheaded new diagnostic techniques to monitor and control plasma processes, therefore leading to less damage to the wafer during manufacturing.
After leaving Bell Labs, Donnelly accepted a position with the University of Houston, where he is currently the graduate director in chemical engineering, as well as teaching one class a semester and continuing his work in plasma research. “I continue to find plasma processing research fascinating,” concludes Donnelly. “The circuits continue to get smaller, which is an interesting physical phenomenon – with a nanofabrication regime we control patterning to the sub-ten nanometer dimension. Yet, at the same time, I’m still just trying to understand the basic plasma chemistry and physics.”