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Rising Star Dr. Walt Trybula

Dr. Walt Trybula Sees Big Potential in the Science of Smallness

Some people at Texas State University know Walt Trybula as the man in the hat. But this Chicago native who claims to hail from “the upper northern portions of the Texas territory,” is not your ordinary cowboy.

Across Texas, in the nation’s capital, and among those in the high-tech industry around the world, Walt Trybula is known for his work in nanotechnology, a huge industry (yes, even bigger than Texas) built on tiny products such as semiconductors.

Trybula, director of the Nanomaterials Application Center (NAC) at Texas State University, received his most recent recognition for his work in nanotechnology in March 2009. The International Society for Optical Engineering (SPIE) named him one of 56 Fellows of the Society for his achievements in emerging optical lithography techniques used in nanotechnology. Trybula has one patent pending in immersion lithography and four others pending that relate to lithography.

Immersion Lithography

Lithography is the process of imprinting patterns on semiconductor wafers that become integrated circuits in electronics devices. Trybula is credited with reducing the development time of a type of lithography called immersion. That process uses liquids to sharpen the focus of the patterns when imprinting them, thus allowing for smaller semiconductors, and in turn, smaller and smarter electronics devices.

“We were getting down beyond the limits of how we could bend natural laws to make the images,” Trybula says of the development of immersion lithography. “We needed something finer. So the question was, ‘Can immersion technology actually be a viable option?’ We didn’t know.”

In October 2002, Trybula, then a senior fellow at SEMATECH, was asked to investigate the possibility of immersion lithography. He gathered experts from around the world, held meetings and put researchers to work on the question. In seven months, they had a preliminary answer.

“There was absolutely nothing we found that could not be solved by engineering,” he says. “In January 2004, which was 14 months after the beginning of the effort, all three major manufacturers of the lithography tools announced delivery schedules. So in a little over one year , we went from ‘Can it be done?’ to ‘Here is when you’re going to get your tools.’ Typically that was a seven- or eight-year process. It wasn’t just me alone; it was a team. But yes, we pulled the development cycle way in.”

The NAC

As director of the NAC at Texas State, Trybula draws on his varied education (a bachelor’s in physics, a master’s in business and a doctorate in information sciences) and work experience (he has taught at the college level and led companies in the high-tech industry).

“Any future developments are not necessarily a single specialty, but the sum of many fields,” Trybula says. “In the university environment, I’m trying to develop new concepts. A broad-based background and knowing that you don’t know a whole lot and that you need experts is really key.”

Trybula matches those experts, often Texas State University researchers, with NAC’s member organizations, which range from other academic institutions to for-profit corporations to government entities. These members need NAC’s equipment and expertise to help them solve problems or develop technologies for use in their operations.

“If there is an interest on the part of the researchers, and the company can help them out, then they work together,” Trybula explains. “One company came in last summer with an idea. It contracted with one of the researchers in physics, and in three months they had a demonstration of the concept. What we provide at Texas State is the ability to help people accelerate their commercialization. You’ve got to get products to market early. You may not have to be first, but you better be second and no more than third.”

NANOSAFETY

An area Trybula would like to be first in is what he calls “NANOSAFETY,” which he says should be in all caps because “there is nothing small about safety and nanotechnology.” Because of the speed at which the nanotechnology industry has advanced, there is not yet a central source of information on nanoparticles and issues related to nanotechnology. But there are many unknowns.

Trybula cites the example of silver particles. He says they are now used on bandages because, at a certain size, they fight bacterial infection. But because they could also kill good bacteria, the Environmental Protection Agency is tightly regulating their use to try to prevent them from being released, uncontrolled, into the environment.

“Are nanoparticles dangerous? Yes, there are some nanoparticles that are dangerous,” Trybula says. “Are there other ones that aren’t? Yes. Who has all the places that identify them? Nobody. This is the whole point. There’s a lot of information floating around out there. How do you put all this together? How do you make it into something that people can go after? How do you also ensure that it’s credible and that it’s not put out by somebody who wants to make money on it?”

Trybula thinks that collaboration with one of the NAC’s newest members, NanoTox, might be the answer. “They want to develop a database so that people have a place to go to check the credibility of issues with nanoparticles,” Trybula says. “If you’re an investor and you’re going to put money into a company, you’d like to know that what they’re doing is relatively safe. If you go to the company, the answer is real simple: ‘Of course it’s safe.’ But you need an independent third party that has methodology.” NanoTox, with the help of Texas State researchers, could become that third party. The company could also help Texas State identify the education required to work in this field.

That would be beneficial because Trybula believes Texas State should take NANOSAFETY a step further and set up a NANOSAFETY training program. “This is really early in the development stage, but if we could offer courses so students would know about NANOSAFETY and how to address problems with nano, we could have a market for our graduates that would be worldwide,” Trybula says. “We’ve got an opportunity to move forward because there’s a definite need, and nobody’s addressing it. We have the capability, so that’s where we’re going. I want Central Texas, San Marcos, to be the place where people go when they need an expert in NANOSAFETY.”

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