Awards Database

Cottrell College Science Awards - 2015

Seth Rittenhouse

Western Washington University
Physics

Transport and Disorder in Simple Lattices with Overlapping Orbital Impurities

Electrons – the negatively charged bits outside the nucleus of an atom – are in constant motion.  Our modern world exists in large part because we’ve learned a few obvious (in retrospect) tricks about making electrons go precisely where we want them to go. Thus we have electricity, artificial light, radio waves and computers.

Despite these wonders, however, we certainly don’t know everything there is to know about making electrons do our bidding. This knowledge gap becomes increasingly important as our computer chips continue to shrink in size, to the point where “one-dimensional” devices (the width of a single atom or molecule) begin to look feasible.

Seth Rittenhouse, associate professor of physics, Western Washington University, has received a Cottrell College Science Award from Research Corporation for Science Advancement to pursue fundamental research about how electrons behave in these one-dimensional environments in the presence of impurities and disorder.

For decades now, we’ve been able to “dope,” or lace with impurities, the pristine, lattice-like repetitive structure inherent in silicon crystals. (Silicon is the main element in sand and quartz.) Normally silicon is a great insulator – not much electricity will flow through it. But add a few phosphorus or arsenic atoms, and an electric current can flow relatively freely.

If successful, the work of Rittenhouse and his students may have implications for researchers working with so-called “quantum wires,” which are only a few atoms or molecules wide, as well as other scientists working to understand how electrons behave in living organisms, and those working with Bose-Einstein condensates (a phase of ultracold matter).

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