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$6M in grants boosts convergence on DNA-enabled electronics

ASU researcher Josh Hihath leads two NSF-funded projects to develop novel nanoelectronics materials and manufacturing methods


A computer-generated model shows a close-up image of a strand of DNA.

A computer-generated model shows a close-up image of a strand of DNA. Image courtesy Sangharsh Lokahare/Unsplash

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December 18, 2023

Josh Hihath is exploring new nanoelectronics frontiers with $6 million in grants from the National Science Foundation for his projects in the field.

Hihath, director of the Biodesign Center for Bioelectronics and Biosensors and professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, part of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, has been awarded two grants, each for $3 million, to fund research investigations into DNA-based electronics.

In one of the projects, Hihath will seek to develop DNA-based topological insulators, a special type of material that conducts electricity on its surface while not conducting it inside the material.

In the second project, Hihath will aim to establish methodologies using DNA to develop highly dense tiny components at the molecular level for use in electronics manufacturing.

“Making progress in nanoscience requires a convergence between different fields, and this is apparent in both of these projects,” Hihath says. “We have teams consisting of chemists, physicists, biochemists, engineers, educators and more. Together, we will work to converge on a shared language that can span these fields, which will allow us to expand our work to solve challenging problems that can’t be done by individual investigators in a single academic discipline.”

Electronics are in our DNA 

Josh Hihath
Josh Hihath

Hihath’s work to investigate the use of DNA as a topological insulator for nanoelectronics is part of the NSF’s Growing Convergence Research, or GCR, program, which promotes deeply integrated interdisciplinary collaboration across different fields to solve problems requiring expertise from more than one area of knowledge. Using a biological material such as DNA fits the bill perfectly by optimizing it for a new use in electronic materials.

Hihath and his team aim to harness and adapt the chemical, mechanical and structural properties of DNA to the individual needs of various electronic devices by molding its topology, which is the layout of the pathway that electrical and magnetic signals follow in a device’s circuits. DNA’s distinct properties have the potential to behave in the same way as various types of materials would in electronics, such as semiconductors, metals and insulators. That would enable creating novel types of electronic materials.

The goal is to use DNA in specialty devices that require DNA’s properties for purposes such as wires, quantum devices and microelectronics like memory chips and transistors, unlocking new capabilities for these and other technology.

Creating biosensors based in biology

While Hihath’s GCR project focuses on the interdisciplinary convergence of a variety of fields to use DNA as a fundamental building block for electronics, his other project emphasizes the practical application of DNA nanotechnology. That work involves investigating the use of DNA to manufacture molecular electronic components as part of the NSF’s Future Manufacturing program, which seeks to advance workforce and research capabilities to unlock new production possibilities.

“The Future Manufacturing project will focus on developing an engineering pipeline to leverage the work that people have been doing in single-molecule electronics for 20 years to be able to manufacture these devices on a larger scale,” Hihath says. “It’s how we will take the fundamental science we’ve been doing, like that in the GCR project, and translate it into reliable, useful and manufacturable devices.”

The ultimate goal in building these dense, single-molecule DNA electronics is to overcome limitations on computing power for nanoelectronics inherent in the use of transistors, which control electrical signals. Increasing the number of transistors in electronics has traditionally increased their power, but there are limits to how small a transistor can be produced.

DNA-based molecular electronics aim to overcome transistor size limits and allow even more dense computing and unlocking of new potential avenues for nanoelectronics. Additionally, DNA-based devices have capabilities traditional electronic materials lack.

Hihath gives an example of a potential application of biological sensors, which are designed to detect specific markers for purposes such as diagnosing medical conditions. DNA’s biological capabilities enable it to recognize other DNA, making it an ideal material for disease detection.

A convergence of fields for an interdisciplinary effort

The interdisciplinary nature of these projects motivated Hihath to collaborate across fields to assemble a top-notch team of experts from both within and outside ASU.

Antia S. Botana, an associate professor with expertise in computational, nanoscience and material physics in ASU’s Department of Physics, applies her knowledge of theoretical condensed matter physics to the research. Hihath recruited Botana to apply her knowledge of topological insulators to DNA nanostructures. She says the novelty of the research is a great way to expand her horizons.

“The interdisciplinary work of this GCR project is a compelling alternative to traditional team endeavors,” Botana says. “It is giving me the freedom to move out of the box of traditional research and learn new things in a field that is beyond my current expertise. Dr. Hihath has done an amazing job at pinpointing one grand challenge that requires convergence among different fields and at identifying the diverse disciplines that may add value to the project.”

Hihath’s cohorts involved in the GCR project include New York University researcher James Canary, a professor of chemistry, who serves as co-principal investigator. Canary will be assisted by senior research scientist Ruojie Sha and postdoctoral researcher Simon Vecchioni. Yonggang Ke, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology, is assisting Hihath on the Future Manufacturing project.

M.P. “Anant” Anantram, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Washington and a co-principal investigator on both of Hihath’s DNA-based electronics projects, has worked on research with Hihath for seven years. Anantram and his Quantum Devices Lab research group develop computer-aided design models for the projects’ DNA-based electronics and code to blueprint their properties.

Anantram’s goal for DNA-based electronics research is to advance efforts to enable the U.S. to lead the world in the nanoelectronics field. He is confident in Hihath’s capabilities to advance nanoelectronic technology.

“Josh receiving two large grants in quick succession is well deserved,” Anantram says. “He has a unique ability to put together large teams to do revolutionary research. Josh does some of the best experiments in this field, and collaborating with him and his students has always been a pleasure.”

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