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Adam Cohen

Electrochemical paintbrush

Adam Adam Cohen is a sophomore at Harvard University, concentrating in Physics and Chemistry. He took his first college course, however, seven years ago; and he has been for many years a researcher and inventor in the field of nanotechnology.

Cohen was born in New York City in 1979. His youthful interest in technology resulted in his first invention, an "alarm" clock that woke him by playing a prerecorded message, when he was in fifth grade. By his freshman year at Hunter College High School, which he supplemented with an electronics course at Rockefeller University (1991), Cohen had converted his bedroom into a laboratory.

On his way to graduating first in his high school class, Cohen created in this private lab a series of award winning inventions, including an eye-tracking apparatus for neuroscience experiments to benefit the disabled (Nynex Science and Technology Expo, Scholarship Award, 1995) and an electrochemical hard disk drive (New York City Science Fair, 1st Prize, 1995).

However, Cohen's greatest triumph was the invention that won him both 1st Place in the 56th Westinghouse Science Talent Search and induction into the National Gallery for America's Young Inventors (1997): a unique nanoscale patterning technique using an electrochemical scanning tunneling microscope.

The title of this invention, on which Cohen has a patent pending, may require some exegesis. Nanoscale technology, or nanotechnology, deals with the manipulation of single molecules and even atoms. One of the most common applications of nanotechnology is the construction of computer microchips, the integrated circuits of which operate using millions of components, most notably transistors, which are each about 1 micron wide (1/100th the width of a human hair). These transistors are "etched" out of the chips by the selective treatment (or "doping") of the surface of the silicon. The scanning tunneling microscope (STM), invented in the early 1980s, creates patterns on the surface of a microchip somewhat as a pencil leaves a trail of graphite on paper, except that the STM uses a combination of electrostatic and chemical forces to deposit one atom at a time of a conductor metal (e.g., copper) on the "blank page" of the silicon chip.

Having built himself an STM in his home lab, Cohen went on to create a more reliable system to pattern microchips with it. Traditionally, the tip or "probe" of an STM would degrade after continuous use, just as a pencil tip becomes blunt. Cohen invented an "electrochemical paintbrush" circuit that allows the STM probe to pick up a tiny bit of copper at a time, deposit it over the silicon surface, pick up another bit of copper, deposit that bit, and so on. The method is like that of a paintbrush moving back and forth from pallet to canvas---except, of course, that the medium is a metal, the scale is almost infinitesimal, and the transfer occurs hundreds of times per second.

In the last two years, Cohen has worked on various other projects at both Harvard's Chemistry Department and MIT's Lincoln Labs. These include advances in electrochemical sensing and "near-field" photolithography. At the same time, Cohen does take time out for less cerebral pursuits, including sports, camping, and theatre.

With several successes to his credit, and over 200 more creative ideas on file, it is clear that Adam Cohen will enjoy a most distinguished career as a high tech engineer and inventor.

[Nov. 1998]

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