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Department of Physics, Applied Physics, and Astronomy
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
110 Eighth Street, Troy, New York 12180-3590 USA

(518) 276-6310
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Alex Buck
Undergraduate Research:
Alex Buck

Our research aim is to exploit iron porphyrin molecules to build a molecular ‘switch’. 

To achieve this, we identify the conductance switching properties of a single iron porphyrin (FeP) molecule. The method we use is the molecular break junction (MBJ) technique using scanning tunneling microscopy (STM). For this technique a finely-tipped probe (a few atoms across) is brought into contact with a single layer of iron porphyrin molecules self-assembled onto a gold-mica substrate. As the probe is retracted at a rate of ~50 nm/sec, a plot of the current through the molecule as a function of the tip-substrate separation is recorded. With constant applied voltage and the recorded current, the current is converted to the conductance of the molecule. Our preliminary results suggest that iron porphyrin exhibits steps in its conductance, which we interpret as a two-state conductance. This implies that iron porphyrin could be exploited as a molecular switch.      

I decided to work on an undergraduate research project because I wanted to get some hands-on experience in physics research, in part so that I could decide what I want to do with my coming summer and after I graduate. Working during the semester is a great way to use what I’ve learned in class, on a project that isn’t constructed so that the numbers come out neatly at the end. I enjoy the challenge, the ability to push ahead as far as I can, and the independence of having my own project. Most weeks working on research is the most interesting thing I do in a day.

The part of the project that interests me the most is the range of applications for what I am doing. I first came to Professor Lewis (my research advisor) because I had seen on the physics website that she was doing research in molecular electronics. By the end of the semester I will be about finished with establishing the conductance of iron porphyrin, at least in air. But the ‘next steps’ for what I’m doing now are endless. Making a molecular switch is the first piece to everything from nanoscale electronics to the next generation of supercomputers.  Being a part of that, laying the groundwork for it, is what really engages me the most about this project.

For me, an ideal career would involve working in an applied research division of a company developing an alternative energy system. My current plan is to go to work in the private sector once I graduate, and after a few years return to graduate school for a more specialized degree. The research I do at Rensselaer gives me a head start on the work that I hope to do after college. It gives me experience in working with large volumes of data, in presenting and organizing my work, and in pushing myself to meet a goal and a deadline.   Research at RPI has been a big step towards my goal of a career in applied research, and has given me the background and experience I will need to succeed after I graduate.

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