Alferov, Zhores Ivanovich (physicist)

(1930- ) Russian Experimentalist, Solid State Physicist

Zhores Alferov is a major figure in solid state physics, whose groundbreaking work on semiconductors led to the creation of the physics of modern miniaturized electronic devices such as cell phones, pagers, and compact disc (CD) players. For this work he shared the 2000 Nobel Prize in physics with two other pioneers in information and communications technology, herbert kroemer and jack st. clair kilby.

He was born on March 15, 1930, in Vitebsk, Belorussia, in what was then the Soviet Union, to Anna Vladimirovna, a librarian and head of a public organization of homemakers, and Ivan Karpovich, a factory director and a Communist Party member, who told Zhores and his brother tales of his exploits in the civil war. He attended a boys’ school in Minsk, which had been devastated in World War II, where an inspiring physics teacher helped him find his calling and advised him to apply for admission to the celebrated V. I. Ulyanov [Lenin] Electrotechnical Institute in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg). Although he found theoretical physics “easy enough,” he was attracted to laboratory work and began the research on semiconductors, that is, materials such as silicon or germanium that have a resistivity midway between that of conductors and that of insulators, that would become his life’s work. In 1952 he graduated from the Department of Electronics, after completing a thesis on the problem of obtaining thin films.

He was offered the opportunity to stay on but instead accepted a position at the Physico-Technical Institute in Leningrad, under the leadership of Abram F. Ioffe in 1953 as a junior researcher in the recently organized semiconductor laboratory. He considered this “lucky chance” to work with the elite of his chosen field the cause of his “happy scientific career.” By May 1953, the first Soviet transistor receivers had been developed and Alferov began to comprehend the significance of the technology for electronic devices as well as basic research. Within the next few years his group developed the first Soviet high-power germanium rectifiers and germanium and silicon photodiodes, used in modern electronic devices. He was part of the team that developed a special semiconductor device for the first Soviet atomic submarine in 1958.

He received his candidate’s degree (somewhere between American master’s and doctoral degrees) from the Ioffe Institute (formerly the Physico-Technical Institute) in 1961. At this point, he became involved with heterostructures and semiconductor lasers. Because early transistors were relatively low-powered and slow, semiconductor transistors based on het-erostructures were proposed as a way of increasing amplification and achieving higher frequencies and power. Such a heterostructure consists of two semiconductors whose atomic structures fit one another well, but that have different electronic properties. Kroemer had formulated these ideas theoretically in a 1957 paper. Alferov understood that semiconductor physics would be developing on the basis of het-ero- rather than homostructures and led his group at the Ioffe Institute in the race to develop this technology before Bell Telephone, IBM, and RCA could do so.

During this period of intense research, he rose steadily in rank at the Ioffe Institute, becoming a senior researcher in 1964 and head of his laboratory in 1967. That year he married Tamara Darskaya, a researcher at a large space enterprise, with whom he would have two children. By 1969 his group had mastered all the ideas on control of the electron and light fluxes in classical heterostructures based on the arsenid gallium-arsenid aluminum heterostructure.

During his first trip to the United States in 1969, Alferov spoke about his group’s recent development of low-threshold room temperature lasers. He electrified his audience when he explained how they had obtained the continuous wave regime by developing an optical fiber with low losses—a breakthrough that resulted in the discovery and rapid development of optical fiber communication. He was able to visit Bell Labs and IBM and later wrote of his relationship with the giant American firms as “a rare example of open and friendly competition between laboratories belonging to the antagonistic great powers.”

Semiconductor heterostructures have been important to the development of lasers, light-emitting diodes, modulators, and solar panels. The semiconductor laser is based on the recombination of electrons and holes, emitting photons (particles of light). If the density of these photons becomes sufficiently high, they may begin to move in rhythm with each other and form a phase-coherent state, that is, laser light. The first semiconductor lasers had low efficiency and could only shine in short pulses. Both Kroe-mer and Alferov had suggested in 1963 that the concentration of electrons, holes, and photons would become much higher if they were confined to a thin semiconductor layer between two others—a double heterojunction. Despite a lack of the most advanced equipment, in May 1970, a few weeks earlier than their American competitors, Alferov’s group succeeded in producing a laser that operated continuously and that did not require troublesome cooling.

After receiving his doctorate from the Ioffe Institute in 1970, Alferov spent six months in 1971 in the United States, working in the semiconductor devices lab at the University of Illinois. In 1973, he became professor of optoelectronics at the Saint Petersburg State Elec-trotechnical Institute (the new name of the Ulyanov Institute). In 1987 he was elected director of the Ioffe Institute and in 1988 was appointed dean of the faculty of physics and technology at Saint Petersburg Technical University. He was elected a corresponding member of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) Academy of Sciences in 1972 and a full member in 1979. Since 1989 he has been vice president of the USSR (now Russian) Academy of Sciences and president of its Saint Petersburg Scientific Center.

In the tumultuous period since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Alferov has been deeply concerned with the plight of Russia’s severely underfunded scientific community. In 1995, to protect the Academy of Sciences, he became a deputy of the State Duma (Russian parliament) and won fame as a leading advocate for educational funding programs. When he won the 2000 Nobel Prize he donated a third of his winnings for the support of Russian education and science. He believes that If Russia is to be a great power, it will be, not because of its nuclear potential, faith in God or the president, or Western investment, but thanks to the labor of the nation, faith in knowledge and science and the maintenance and development of scientific potential and education.

Alferov’s work has led to spectacular scientific breakthroughs in which the advanced materials and tools of microelectronics are being used for studies in nanoscience and investigations of quantum effects. The impact of Alferov’s research on the modern world of electronics and communication has been enormous. Lasers and light-emitting diodes (LEDs) have been further developed in many stages. Without the heterostructure laser, today we would not have had optical broadband links, CD players, laser printers, bar code readers, laser pointers, and numerous scientific instruments. LEDs are used in displays of all kinds, including traffic signals, and may eventually replace lightbulbs altogether. In recent years, it has been possible to make LEDs and lasers that cover the full visible wavelength range, including blue light. Today, high-speed transistors are found in cellular phones and in their base stations, in satellite dishes and links. There they are part of devices that amplify weak signals from outer space or from a faraway cellular phone without drowning in the noise of the receiver itself.

Alferov is currently editor in chief of the Russian journal Technical Physics Letters and a member of the editorial board of the Russian journal Science and Life. He is the author of four books, 400 articles, and 50 inventions involving semiconductor technology.

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