Leburton Combines Biology and Nanoelectronics to Find Innovative Solutions

As a Beckman Institute original faculty member, Jean-Pierre Leburton has been a pioneer in using physics to develop devices with novel functionality and higher performances.

“Ever since I was a kid, I have been trying to understand nature and to find solutions to problems. I like to search for solutions, especially when the problem has not been solved by other people. I try to see if I can bring my own explanation or interpretation to experimental observations. And the Beckman Institute is very good place to be to solve problems.” 

Jean-Pierre Leburton has been solving problems at the Beckman Institute for 25 years, and has fashioned a remarkable career as an original member of the Beckman Institute. He began his research at the Institute working with former Beckman faculty member Karl Hess on topics such as semiconductors physics, in a career that has continued to this day with a research approach that he says is “on the borderline between applied physics and electrical engineering.” 

Throughout his career, Leburton has investigated how physics could create devices with novel functionality and higher performances. Along the way, he brought in two key components that would drive his work forward: considering smaller objects and incorporating biological concepts. 

When I first came here, I wasn’t involved with life sciences. But Beckman provides an environment to build connections between life sciences and physical sciences. Through my interactions with other faculty members, I found that there was a scientific convergence between biology and nanoelectronics that would allow us to manipulate bio-objects at the molecular level to increase their functionality and performance. - Jean-Pierre Leburton

“I realized that in order to increase the performance or the functionality of a device, one needs to consider smaller and smaller material structures by exploiting quantum effects, or effects that occur at the very, very small scale,” Leburton said. 

Once working at the nanoscale level, he then found biology could play an interesting role in his otherwise physics-centered work. 

“When I first came here, I wasn’t involved with life sciences,” Leburton said. “But Beckman provides an environment to build connections between life sciences and physical sciences. Through my interactions with other faculty members, I found that there was a scientific convergence between biology and nanoelectronics that would allow us to manipulate bio-objects at the molecular level to increase their functionality and performance.” 

One of the hybrid projects Leburton works on is a nanoscale transistor that harnesses the remarkable electrical properties of graphene, a novel mono-atomic layer carbon material, to sequence individual strands of DNA (roughly a billionth of a meter wide). 

The graphene is electrically charged and threads DNA strands through a nanopore in a solid-state, multilayer semiconductor membrane, unlocking the sequence of a person’s whole genome. 

This device has the potential to revolutionize modern medicine, as it would provide a cheap, efficient, and quick way to sequence DNA of individual patients, allowing for personalized health care. No longer will patients receive the same medicine, dosage, or treatment plan—each patient will get the care that best fits his or her genetic makeup. 

“For me as a physicist, the theoretical part is interesting, but as an engineer, I wish to find applications of my work,” Leburton said. “This research will certainly be very beneficial for humanity and society.” 

Oxford Nanopore Technologies, a company that develops nanopore equipment to sequence DNA, funds part of the research on this new graphene-based approach. 

Leburton joined forces with Beckman researchers Rashid Bashir and Aleksei Aksimentiev to integrate their theoretical and experimental efforts. 

“This project fits very well within the research scope of the Beckman Institute because it brings together scientists with different expertise,” Leburton said. “Bashir is a bioengineer, Aksimentiev is a theoretical biophysicist, and I am an electrical engineer with a physics background. People who otherwise would have pursued their research in their own department can work on a project at the crossroad among different disciplines.” 

In this particular case, it merges the completely separate fields of biology and basic nanoelectronics. 

“My vision is that in the future, we will start to investigate an increasing number of problems that require a broad scope of expertise, transcending traditional disciplines. This kind of bio-electronic device that is benefiting from merged disciplines was not thinkable about 15 years ago,” Leburton said. “If you can combine the functionality of the biological system with the speed and reliability of solid-state technology, this will bring tremendous technological advances in society and solve a lot of problems, especially in medicine.” 

In addition to this project, Leburton continues to investigate the connection between physics and nanoscale device functionality. 

“I’m looking at the implications of size effects, like what happens when you take material structures and you reduce their sizes,” Leburton said. “Anytime I can find a new function for a device, especially as one considers smaller and smaller scales, I’m happy—that’s what I find interesting.”

Leburton earned his Ph.D. in theoretical solid-state physics at the University of Liege in Belgium in 1978. After working two years for Siemens in Germany, he took the opportunity to come to Illinois in 1981 as a visiting professor and postdoc for Hess. 

“I always wanted to come to the United States, and I particularly wanted to work with Karl, but I didn’t have the intention to pursue a career here,” he said. “I came for one year, then two years, and then I decided to stay. This is one of the greatest places in the United States to do research.” 

Some of his future work involves implementing high-resolution simulation of the DNA sequencing transistor into an operational computer model, to provide directions as well as feedback to the experimental effort. 

“That’s the thing with solving problems,” Leburton said. “In the process of solving them, you find new interesting effects, which allows you to make a proposal for new projects and devices that serve a different function or operation. There’s always more to learn.” 

Looking Forward

“Recent advances in my field have been driven by the need to manipulate physical objects on a smaller and smaller scale. In this context, the emergence of new mono-atomic layer materials, such as carbon nanotubes, graphene, or transition metal dichalcogenides (Mos2), opens new avenues for novel multifunctional electronic or optical devices, such as the solid-state transistor using graphene, which I propose to use to sequence DNA. the fact that graphene is so thin—only one atom thick—made it possible to sense and manipulate DNA molecules on the atomic scale. 

“Additionally, the convergence of technological interests between nanoelectronics and biology provides new ways to increase device functionality and performances at the molecular level. The advantage of biology is its complexity and its enormous capability to store and manipulate information, but it doesn’t process information that efficiently—it is slow and not very stable. On the opposite side, information processing in semiconductor technology is relatively simple and very reliable, fast, and stable. Merging the two capabilities would result in a quite remarkable system.

“In the next 25 years, I foresee particular advances in the synthesis of semiconductor and biotechnologies, especially on brain research related activities, where electronics could play an important role in biological information processing.”