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ILP Institute Insider

September 12, 2019

Max Shulaker: Reimagining future electronic systems

Max Shulaker leads the Novel Electronic Systems Group at MIT, which leverages the unique properties of emerging nanotechnologies and nanodevices to create new systems and architectures with enhanced functionality and improved performance.

Daniel de Wolff

Max Shulaker’s interest in nanotechnology began during his PhD years at Stanford where he worked in a nanofabrication facility building and testing novel devices and materials. Specifically, the materials he focused on were carbon nanotubes. Put simply, these tubes are flat sheets of graphene (hexagonal lattices of carbon), rolled into 3 dimensional cylinders with a diameter of 1-2 nanometers. Not only are they extremely small (consider the fact that a sheet of paper has a thickness of about 100,000 nm), but they also have the highest strength-to-weight ratio of any known material and possess exceedingly high rates of thermal and electrical conductivity. Technologists like Shulaker posit that they might be the answer to the semiconductor industry’s looming silicon dilemma.

Moore’s Law projects that the number of transistors in a computer chip will double approximately every two years. But for some time, despite creative advancements, we’ve been grinding towards the inevitable limit of how many silicon transistors can be crowded into a chip. In a very basic sense, this is a question of space, or lack thereof. Enter the carbon nanotube and its champions. In 2013 Shulaker and his partners in the Stanford Robust Systems Group built the first computer made entirely of carbon nanotube circuits. If the goal is to one day replace silicon as the foundation for electronic circuits, this rudimentary design represented a massive step towards a previously unimagined high-speed computing reality.

Shulaker joined MIT as an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in 2016 and leads the Novel Electronic Systems Group. “Our research here at MIT focuses on both the development and experimental realization of what I like to call nanosystems,” he says. Shulaker and his group use emerging nanotechnologies to enable new devices including transistors, memory cells, and censors, combining the benefits of these devices to realize new systems, which in turn enable new applications. “We’re going beyond proof of concept, shrinking the gap between the ideas that motivate the research and what we show in the labs. We’re actually building the systems and doing the applications that motivate the initial work on new types of technologies.”

One of the many emerging technologies that he focuses on are carbon nanotubes. And while they are only one aspect of what he’s currently exploring, he admits they represent an excellent case study. In other words, while the original focus might be on making an improved device using carbon nanotubes, Shulaker is interested in taking things a step, or several steps, further by pioneering cutting-edge systems using the technology. He points to the fact that he and other researchers in the community have made tremendous advances in the field, forging devices that can compete with silicon. “We’ve built systems that have millions of these devices on them. I think this demonstrates that after all these years of work the field is starting to become fruitful. Now we can go beyond the nitty gritty device level questions and start building some really exciting chips and systems with these technologies.”

He talks about a holistic approach to novel electronic systems, insisting that tweaking the material being used, altering a device, or modifying the architecture is insufficient. “If we want to dramatically improve the performance of electronic systems we need to take a holistic approach. It’s not about finding the best device or the newest and fanciest architecture, but rather it’s about finding the right technology to build the right systems to enable the right applications.” He continues, “When you combine these elements, that’s when you create something truly special. Perhaps even something we can only really imagine today.” For Shulaker, the process begins with a question. For example, “If we are already building systems with millions of sensors directly on a chip, what types of medical applications can we devise and what could this do for point of care diagnostics? Or if you use nanotechnologies and not even use a chip, but just put nanotechnologies inside the blood stream and monitor them in real time, what could you do with that?”

Having spent his initial time filling out the group he heads, as Shulaker approaches his one year anniversary with MIT he is looking to branch out. Specifically, the Novel Electronic Systems Group has begun collaborating with hospitals to perform medical trials on the chips he and his group have been developing. Given the fact that the rapidly evolving point of care diagnostics landscape is helping to drive the nanotechnology industry, it should come as no surprise that Shulaker and his Novel Electronic Systems Group have begun collaborating with hospitals to perform medical trials on the chips that he and his team are making. In addition to point of care partnerships, Shulaker says he is particularly excited to be working with Analog Devices (ADI), the semi-conductor giant perhaps best known as a supplier of Apple. “We’ve been able to start a few different projects with ADI, investigating how we can use these technologies to build new types of chips and systems. We’re trying to build the largest scale systems using technologies that have never been shown before. The goal is not just to understand more about the underlying physics or characterize the devices but to show large scale working systems that can actually outperform the best silicon based systems that exist today.”

Shulaker says that working with industry partners allows his group to address problems that really matter by pinpointing specific questions that will “enable the next generation of an actual product.” He cites the ability to work on high risk/high rewards projects as a particularly satisfying aspect of melding the worlds of academia and industry. Rather than looking for incremental performance gains, Shulaker says they strive for big improvements, which jibes well with his approach. “The direction, the technology, the systems, everything that we try to build is radically different from what exists today.” This allows for Shulaker and his group to transform their research by asking scientifically interesting questions while addressing industry problems with the goal being maximum impact. “At the end of the day, the work that we are doing now will not just lead to publications and interesting ideas, but to actual products that will make a difference in people’s lives.”

Watch the related videos here.