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Physicist explores science behind smartphones

The computer, and the devices that use them, are considered one of the biggest success stories of modern physics. 

Physics and engineering continue to be the catalyst for improving performance, processing time and energy efficiency of the devices we rely on every day—our cell phones, smart watches, tablets and laptops. 

Micky Holcomb, Assistant Professor of Physics

Micky Holcomb, assistant professor of physics at West Virginia University, is making great progress in understanding the physics behind these technologies. In just one month, she accepted three grants worth nearly $1.2 million from the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy and the American Chemical Society.

Holcomb explores the chemical environments around specific materials used to build small computing devices, such as magnetic and ferroelectric thin films. She has more than a decade of experience growing the materials and conducting element-specific measurements to better understand their properties, characteristics and how they interact.  

“The physics behind what happens in these materials really isn’t well understood at all,” Holcomb said. “We hope these studies will provide good insight into their properties and how they behave.”

Her research focuses on the high-quality growth and novel characterization of strongly correlated systems. In these materials, there is a strong competition between the electric and magnetic properties, which can cause unique behaviors useful for improving our devices and the technology they use.

Vacancies of materials can be detrimental in small computing devices. For example, a lack of oxygen can reduce a device’s magnetism, causing the technology to require more material, perform slower and be less cost effective.

“(In the Department of Energy) study, we are trying to see if we can control the oxygen. Past research suggests it’s possible,” Holcomb said. “We are using new methods to quantify the distribution of the missing oxygen before and after we try to move it. We currently don’t have great methods to quantify missing atoms—that’s why this research is so important.”


Another technique that Holcomb has refined in her research is depth dependent x-ray absorption spectroscopy, used for specific measurements of atomic valence and magnetization. The method allows for the study of multiple material layers and interfaces to gain a better understanding of how they interact.

“The one really unique thing we are able to do is see the depth of the material. There aren’t too many techniques that can do that at all,” Holcomb said. “Most of the methods that do are destructive techniques. We want to avoid that to measure them many other ways.”

By measuring materials in multiple ways, Holcomb and her team have been able to understand some of the most complicated physics. If they cut up the samples, many of which they grow themselves, they limit opportunities for future research.

Holcomb hopes her research will help the public become more familiar with how physics is used in everyday life.

“Research and basic science have created a lot of great things for society,” Holcomb said. “We have to understand physics so we can make the next new gadgets that will benefit everybody. We have to start with the fundamentals to get to that next level.”

Photo credit: Kohei314