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Nano gridiron: CU physicists create tiny trophy to be awarded on Super Bowl Sunday

While the world's biggest football game is under way, someone will be awarded the world's smallest trophy, created by Cornell nanotechnology specialists.

The "Nano Bowl" contest, sponsored by PhysicsCentral -- an educational arm of the American Physical Society -- challenges entrants to create short videos explaining some aspect of the physics of football. The winner, to be announced on Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 3, will receive a trophy made at the Cornell NanoScale Facility (CNF). The trophy is built around a silicon chip on which, like Russian nesting dolls, football fields nest inside one another, the largest about 12 millimeters long and the smallest only 2 microns (millionths of a meter) long. The winner also will receive $1,000 in normal-sized cash, and the video will be featured on the Physics Central Web site.

The chip was designed and fabricated by Philip Waggoner and Benjamin Cipriany, Cornell applied and engineering physics graduate students working in the lab of Harold Craighead, the Charles W. Lake Jr. Professor of Engineering -- the same lab that created the famous nanoguitar. Waggoner and Cipriany were helped by Rob Ilic, a research associate at CNF.

Under an ordinary microscope, the surface of the fingernail-sized chip displays an image of a football field and the words "Physics Central Nano Bowl Champion 2008." In the center of the field, on part of a stylized football helmet, is a tiny rectangle 120 microns long. An electron microscope would reveal that this is another football field, and in its center is yet another, only 2.4 microns long. The smallest image is drawn in lines only 59 nanometers (billionths of a meter) wide, something that can only be done with the electron-beam lithography capability of CNF.

The usual process for making chips, called photolithography, can't make features smaller than the wavelength of light. Electron-beam lithography uses a tightly focused beam of electrons guided by a computer to erode away parts of a protective coating on a silicon surface, after which the exposed areas are etched away.

"I thought of nested fields because it's pointless to give someone a trophy they can't see unless they have an electron microscope in their garage," Waggoner said.

When not making nanotrophies, Waggoner is developing nanoscale sensors to identify proteins for such medical testing as detecting the PSA protein marker for prostate cancer; and Cipriany builds nanofluidic channels narrow enough to make DNA molecules line up in single file to be counted and identified.

To enter the contest, upload an original video about the physics of football to YouTube with the tag "nanobowl" by Jan. 15. The Society of Physics Students and the American Association of Physics Teachers are promoting the contest with the hope that students will be inspired to create videos, and maybe learn some physics in the process.

CNF is supported by the National Science Foundation.

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Blaine Friedlander