Bob Butera

Atomistic Fabrication Takes Skill, Patience, and a Steady Hand

Bob Butera is building a bridge to the new world of quantum computing, one tiny atom at a time. Sure it might seem like an impossible mission, but he also calls it basically the coolest thing ever.

Bob Butera was always enticed by the idea of working for NSA, yet his unique career path might not have happened without a couple of notable experiences.

“When I was in graduate school, we had a career day. And at that career day there was a booth set up by NSA and the CIA,” he recalled. “I really hit it off with a recruiter from NSA.” But it was after joining NSA that he was introduced to the exciting research and development happening in the agency.

“I saw a briefing, and I approached the speaker at the end to say, ‘What you just presented is almost exactly what I did for my PhD thesis. Is there any way that I can help out with this project?’ I was amazed at the potential practical application of the work I did in graduate school and wanted to get involved in any way I could to lend my expertise.”

As a child, Bob was always drawn to science and math and went on to get a BS in Physics (major) and Mathematics (minor), then a PhD in Materials Science and Engineering, where his thesis focused on the same type of work he’s doing now. He still marvels at the connection between his academic and professional lives.

Bob works at NSA’s Laboratory for Physical Sciences, where he leads the lab’s atomistic fabrication efforts—building electronic devices “from the ground up, atom by atom.” To do this, he and his team use a scanning tunneling microscope to guide electrons towards a silicon surface, thereby causing the reactions that enable atomic-precision placement of single atoms on the surface.

“We’re working with and guiding single atoms to fabricate devices with true atomic-scale dimensions,” he says. “Sometimes, the concept is just mind-blowing. Being able to manipulate things at the atomic level is almost beyond belief.”

“To be able to have that sort of control over where you're placing things and how that leads into the end device to me just seems to be the coolest thing ever.”

It’s ground-breaking science that, like much of what happens at NSA’s labs, brings to mind the quote from Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Fritjob Nansen: "The difficult is what takes a little time; the impossible is what takes a little longer."

Indeed, Bob isn’t deterred by the fact that his work seemed impossible until not too long ago, and still sounds a bit like science fiction. Instead, he methodically pursues his objectives with a quiet enthusiasm—and a steady hand, which he calls the “unsung skill” of manipulating these special materials in ultra-high vacuum environments.

The goal of this pioneering work is nothing short of a new age of computing. Today’s computers rely on a binary system to encode and retrieve information—from your best friend’s phone number to the most mind-blowing video game, to the text you're reading now, it’s all the result of a complex chain of ones and zeroes that add up to information stored and deployed by a computer in different ways.

But what if you could build a computer that could operate beyond ones and zeros? That’s where Bob gets excited. This would require a different type of computer, based on the emerging science of quantum mechanics. Conventional computers use binary digits, or bits, as their basic unit of information storage. Bob is helping develop the basic unit of storage for the quantum age, the qubit, by pushing atoms around with a scanning tunneling microscope.

“I love the work that we're doing in my lab, being able to create things to fabricate electronic devices from the ground up, atom by atom,” he says, his quiet enthusiasm coming through. “To be able to have that sort of control over where you're placing things and how that leads into the end device to me just seems to be the coolest thing ever.”

Bob regularly shares both his expertise and enthusiasm with younger scientists at the lab. “I cannot state enough how much I enjoy what I do and training/coaching the next generation of scientists in my lab to continue moving forward and pushing the boundaries of what is possible at the atomic scale.” He adds that everyone is needed, regardless of scientific discipline: “There’s plenty of room for the material scientists, the chemists, the other things to make contributions.”

This Barrier Breaker profile is part of a series focusing on researchers at the NSA's material science laboratory. To meet some of Dan's amazing colleagues and learn more about how primary research at NSA helps benefit society (and keeps our country safe), check out our story Inventing the Future at NSA Labs.