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Sands to join ECE

Timothy Sands

Tim Sands is an expert in microelectronics, optoelectronics, and nanotechnology. He co-invented a process used worldwide to manufacture high-performance green and blue LEDs.

When Virginia Tech’s next president is installed in June, he will join the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering as a tenured professor. Timothy Sands, a leader in higher education and interdisciplinary research, is also an expert in microelectronics, optoelectronics, and nanotechnology.

While Sands has served as executive vice president for academic affairs and provost of Purdue University since 2010—with a six-month stint as interim president—he spent most of his career as an engineer, first in industry, then as a professor at the University of California, Berkeley and at Purdue. His research in nanomaterials and devices has advanced the fields of solid-state lighting, thermoelectric energy conversion, and semiconductor processing. Among other advances, Sands co-invented a process used throughout the world today in the manufacture of high-performance green and blue LEDs.

He has been the lead on research grants totaling more than $4 million from sponsors including the National Science Foundation (NSF), Office of Naval Research (ONR), IBM, and NASA. He has published more than 260 refereed journal and conference papers and holds 16 U.S. patents.

Sands is a Fellow of the IEEE and the Materials Research Society (MRS) and in 2012 was elected to the National Academy of Inventors as a Charter Fellow. According to his nanoHUB profile, his most significant scientific and technical contributions include i) the understanding of the interface reactions leading to low-resistance, shallow, and thermally stable ohmic contacts to compound semiconductors; ii) demonstration of the first stable and epitaxial metal III-V heterostructures; iii) transfer of the laser lift-off process for GaN LED packaging to industry; and iv) leadership of the team that fabricated the first monolithic fluorescence detection microsystems.

Undergraduate research experience launches career

Sands grew up in the San Francisco Bay area and went to what he considered his local public university, UC Berkeley. “It was 30 miles away, and it was $212 a quarter, and that made it feasible for me,” he said. He started in civil engineering because he had always enjoyed building things, but was so engaged by his physics and mathematics courses that he earned a B.S. with highest honors in engineering physics in 1980.

He credited an undergraduate research experience with starting him on a career in research. “I was just running punch cards through a computer to optimize an RC circuit in a particle detector,” Sands recalled. “I didn’t really understand what I was doing. But I got to interact with scientists from Berkeley, and scientists from CERN in Switzerland. I met all sorts of really exciting people who were both good with their hands—they could build anything—but they were working on the most fundamental questions in science. That really made me reflect on the idea that maybe I would like to do scientific research, and that stuck with me.”

Using technology to solve big problems

The oil embargo of the mid 1970s triggered an interest in photovoltaics and solar cells and using technology to solve some of society’s biggest problems. Immediately after earning his bachelor’s degree, Sands spent a summer at the Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI), now called the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) at Golden, Colo. He then returned to Berkeley and earned his M.S. and Ph.D. in materials science in 1981 and 1984, respectively.

He completed a postdoctoral fellowship in the Materials and Molecular Research Division of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, then took an industrial research position with Bell Communications Research (Bellcore, now Telcordia Technologies) in Red Bank, N.J. This was during the divestiture of AT&T, when Bellcore was split off from Bell Laboratories to provide the research and development services for the local exchange carriers. “I had planned to be an academic,” Sands said. But, when he met the team at Bellcore, “I was overwhelmed by their collaborartive spirit and high aspirations for their work.” So, he joined them.

Investing in students for a lifetime

Sands worked at Bellcore for nine years, as a member of the technical staff, then director of the Thin Films and Interface Science Research Group, and later, director of the Nonvolatile Memory Research Group. In 1993, Sands returned to Berkeley as a professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. “I loved industrial research, but felt that something was missing,” he said. “I had a gut feeling that working with students would be the difference and that they would change my outlook on the value of what I was doing.”

His experience at Berkeley proved his instinct correct, he said. “With students, it’s an investment for a lifetime.” Ph.D. students “become part of your academic family.”

While at Berkeley, he taught classes in bonding, crystallography and crystal defects, semiconductor processing, and crystal structure and bonding. He also developed a new freshman seminar called “The Disk Drive: Microcosm of Engineering,” and senior-level and graduate-level courses in thin-film materials science. He conducted research in thin films and nanotechnology. It was at Berkeley that he co-invented the laser lift-off process for fabricating InGaN LED membranes.

In 2001, Sands served as a visiting professor at the Interuniversity Microelectronics Center and Faculty of Engineering at Katholieke Universiteit in Leuven, Belgium. On his return to Berkeley, he became the director of the Integrated Materials Laboratory.

Interdisciplinary collaboration

Birck Nanotechnology Center

Tim Sands served as director of the Birck Nanotechnology Center at Purdue, working with researchers from a dozen different disciplines.

In 2002, he accepted a named university professorship at Purdue University. He was the Basil S. Turner Professor of Engineering with a joint appointment in the School of Materials Engineering and the School of Electrical & Computer Engineering. He told a local reporter at the time that part of the attraction was Purdue’s Discovery Park, which had been founded the previous year. Discovery Park is Purdue’s hub for interdisciplinary and translational research, conceived as a place where scholars from all disciplines could work together to define whole new areas of research and solve grand challenges. In 2006 Sands was named the Mary Jo and Robert L. Kirk Director of the Birck Nanotechnology Center, one of Discovery Park’s six core centers that brings together researchers from a dozen different disciplines.

Materials engineering is inherently interdisciplinary. In a July 2006 presentation for the Nanotechnology Center for Learning and Teaching, Sands described the explosion of advances in nanotechnology as a result of “chemists, physicists, and engineers working elbow-to-elbow.” Nanotechnology had a steep slope of change, he said.

While at Purdue, Sands taught courses in materials in electronic devices and thin films and coatings. He also developed courses in nanofabrication and materials and devices, for solid-state energy conversion. Remembering the impact of his own undergraduate research experience, he mentored 30 undergraduates in research projects at Purdue.

The next solid state revolution

His interest in working on big issues, such as energy use, has not waned. His most recent research has focused on developing novel nanocomposite materials for environmentally friendly and cost-effective solid-state lights, direct conversion of heat to electrical power, and thermoelectric refrigeration. In October 2012, he called it, “the next solid state revolution,” in a research focus piece on Purdue’s materials engineering website. “Several nascent solid-state technologies, born in the 1950s, are now poised to uproot such stalwarts as the light bulb and the compressor-based refrigerator,” he wrote. Even more intriguing, he said, were the new applications such as energy scavenging for distributed sensor networks, electrical power generation from waste heat in automobile exhaust, and permanently embedded architectural lighting.

The obstacles to implementing these solid-state technologies are efficiency and manufacturing cost. “Efficiency improvement by a factor of two or three must start from breakthroughs in materials,” Sands said, with nanocomposites offering the greatest opportunity.

At a Virginia Tech press conference last December, Sands described how researchers often divide into those following their curiosity and those seeking to improve society. The faculty, staff, and students at Virginia Tech, he said, present the ideal mix that resonates with his values and experience. Virginia Tech has faculty members and students who follow their curiosity, but recognize when it has value to society and don’t just “throw it over the wall,” but nurture it to bring it to its potential, he explained.