Elsa Reichmanis, 2007. CHF Collections. Photograph by Douglas A. Lockard.
In 1985 a personal computer’s microprocessor chip had 275,000 transistors on it. In 2000 the number of transistors on a similarly sized chip was 42 million. By 2010 such a chip carried over a billion transistors of average width 32 nanometers (32 billionths of a meter). While a scientist at Bell Labs, birthplace of the transistor, Elsa Reichmanis (b. 1953) contributed to this progression by devising polymers that let manufacturers create ever-smaller parts in computer chips, making each chip more powerful. Also called integrated circuits, chips are built on thin wafers of silicon that are coated with a chemical called a “resist.” In a process known as microlithography, the patterns of chips are printed on wafers by projecting the pattern onto the resist. The resist captures the pattern like photographic paper grabs a picture. Chemical washes remove unwanted material from the wafer, leaving the desired pattern and producing the chips. Reichmanis pioneered new polymeric resists in the early 1990s that enabled extremely small circuits to be printed on silicon chips.
Reichmanis has also been actively engaged in the research and development of the latest electronics materials, including conductive polymers (see Alan MacDiarmid, Alan Heeger, and Hideki Shirakawa), which allow devices and circuits to be printed on plastic film, rather than on silicon, which by comparison is more costly, not flexible, and heavier. In 2001 Reichmanis collaborated on a project that produced the first “flexible electronic paper” prototype, which could be read and bent like paper but refreshed like a computer screen. Her research into these silicon alternatives holds the potential for all sorts of interesting “flexible” electronics, lighter in weight and less expensive than today’s electronics, such as flexible plastic TVs or laptops. She is also researching hybrid organic-inorganic materials (materials that employ both conductive organic polymers and inorganic silicon) and their electronic applications. There are also numerous potential applications for her work in health care, communications, and the military.
Reichmanis was born in Australia in 1953. Her parents, Peteris and Nina Reichmanis, were native Latvians who fled to Germany after World War II to escape Soviet rule in their home country. In 1946 they immigrated to Australia, where they began their family. Their first daughter, Maria, was born in 1949; Elsa followed four years later. They finally left Australia in 1962 for Syracuse, New York, to join other family members who had fled Latvia and settled in the United States.
Education was important to her parents, who made sure she kept up with her studies, even during the long sea voyage from Australia to the United States. Exceling in science and math, Reichmanis finished high school early, at the age of 15, and then attended Syracuse University, earning a bachelor’s degree and enrolling in graduate school. Organic chemistry was her chosen field, and she was fascinated by the idea of being able to design and build molecules from atoms. At 22, she graduated from Syracuse with her Ph.D.
Reichmanis stayed on at Syracuse for postdoctoral work, during which time she met Frank Purcell, whom she later married. She eventually left upstate New York for AT&T Bell Labs, (now Bell Labs, Alcatel-Lucent) in New Jersey, where she rose to become director of materials for communications research. In 2008 she left the corporate world to become a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Reichmanis has earned several patents and is the recipient of many awards, including the Society of Chemical Industry’s 2001 Perkin Medal and the 1999 American Chemical Society’s Award in Applied Polymer Science. She was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1995 and served as president of the American Chemical Society in 2003.