"We develop new routes to synthesize thin film materials for advanced nanoscale devices. For example, novel precursor molecules and
co-reactants afford
ultra-smooth and conformal films at low temperatures."

John R. Abelson

Emeritus Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Co-Director of the Energy and Sustainability Engineering Initiative

Office 1-109 Engineering Sciences Building

Telephone 217-333-7258 Fax 217-333-2736

Mail Address Department of Materials Science and Engineering
1304 W. Green St., Urbana, IL 61801

abelson@illinois.edu   Abelson research group page

  • Profile
  • Research
  • Publications
  • Awards


Professor Abelson received his BS from Yale University in 1979, was a researcher at the Solar Energy Research Institute (1979-81) and the Ecole Polytechnique, Paris (1981-82), received his PhD from Stanford in 1987, then joined the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at UIUC. He is active in the Materials Research Society and is a Fellow of the American Vacuum Society.

Academic and Scientific Experience

Academic Training

B.S. Yale University, Engineering and Applied Science, 1979
Ph.D. Stanford University, Materials Science and Engineering, 1987

Research Positions

Research Assistant, Solar Energy Research Institute, Golden Colorado, 1979-1981
Visiting Scientist, Ecole Polytechnique, Paris France, 1981-1982
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1988-present
Mâitre de Recherches, Ecole Polytechnique, Paris France, autumn 2002 (sabbatical)

Consultant Positions

Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, 1982-1983
EG&G Reticon, Sunnyvale, CA, 1986-1987
Lawrence Livermore Laboratories, 1987
Intevac Corporation, 1993-1997
BP Solar Corporation, 1997-2002
3M Corporation, 2000-2003
Dow Corning New Venture Energy, 2002-2004
Tiptek, 2013-present

Courses Taught at UIUC

MSE 200, Introduction to Engineering Materials
MSE 201, Phases and Microstructures
MSE 204, Electronic Properties of Materials
MSE 346, Metallurgy for Engineers
MSE 360, Electronic Materials and Processing I
MSE 362, Thin Film Laboratory
MSE 392, Fundamentals of Laboratory Safety
MSE 405, Microstructure Determination
MSE 462, Electronic Materials Characterization
MSE 489, Materials Selection for Sustainability
MSE 498, Photovolatic Materials and Devices
MSE 564, Materials Science of Thin Film Growth
MSE 584, Point and Line Defects
ENG 571, Energy & Sustainability Engineering


Our research focus is the synthesis of thin films by surface-controlled reaction to afford ultra-smooth, conformal, superconformal, or nanostructured surfaces for use in electronic, photonic, magnetic or tribological applications.

The primary experimental approach is low-temperature chemical vapor deposition (CVD) under conditions where molecular adsorption is strong and the reaction (film growth) rate is moderated by surface site blocking or associative desorption processes. An innovation in our work is the use of neutral ‘inhibitor’ molecules to control the surface kinetics.

Our work involves a very close collaboration with the group of Prof. Greg Girolami in the Department of Chemistry. They specialize in the invention and synthesis of new precursor molecules for the CVD process. These molecules are designed to react at desired substrate temperatures to afford high purity materials. However, if a molecule is not satisfactory, the group of Prof. Girolami creates a new variant for us by modifying the ligand groups. Thus, our joint group effort operates at the leading edge of invention and new possibilities in thin film growth.

Current systems under study include: refractory and ultra-hard metal diborides; oxides of Ti, Mg, and the rare earths; copper and silver; iron, cobalt and other magnetic materials.

We have invented a method to grow films in a superconformal fashion, in which the thickness increases with depth below the opening of a deep feature. This will enable the complete filling of such features, as required in microelectronic and nanoscale device fabrication. We have invented a method to control the density and size distribution of nuclei on relatively unreactive substrates. This can be used to deposit ultra-smooth, ultra-thin films, or instead, an array of relatively uniform islands for plasmonic applications.


Recent publications (since 2012) – A full list is available on our group webpage

N. Tayebi, A. Yanguas-Gil, N. Kumar, Y. Zhang, J. R. Abelson, Q. Ma and V. Rao, "Hard HfB2 Tip-Coatings for Ultrahigh Density Probe-Based Storage," APL 101, 091909 (2012)

S.W. Schmucker, N. Kumar, J.R. Abelson, S.R. Daly, G.S. Girolami, J.W. Lyding, “Field-Directed Sputter Sharpening for Tailored Probe Materials and Atomic-Scale Lithography,” Nature Communications 3, 935 (2012)

W. Wang, Y. Yang, A. Yanguas-Gil, N. N. Chang, G. S. Girolami and J. R. Abelson, “Highly conformal magnesium oxide thin films by low-temperature chemical vapor deposition from Mg(H3BNMe2BH3)(2) and water,” APL 102, 101605 (2013)

127. T. S. Spicer, C. W. Spicer, G. S. Girolami and J. R. Abelson, "Low-Temperature CVD of Crystalline Manganese Nitride (η Mn3N2-x) Thin Films from Bis[di(tert butyl)amido]manganese(II) and Ammonia," JVST-A, 31(3), 030604 (2013)

K. Darmawikarta, S. Raoux, P. Tchoulfian, T. Li, J. R. Abelson and S. G. Bishop, "Evolution of Subcritical Nuclei in Nitrogen-alloyed Ge2Sb2Te5," J. Appl. Phys. 112, 124907 (2012)

T. T. Li and J. R. Abelson, "Quantifying nanoscale order in amorphous materials via scattering covariance in the TEM," Ultramicroscopy 133, 95(2013)

S. Babar, N. Kumar, P. Zhang, J. R. Abelson, A. C. Dunbar, S. R. Daly, and G. S. Girolami, “Growth Inhibitor To Homogenize Nucleation and Obtain Smooth HfB2 Thin Films by Chemical Vapor Deposition” Chem. Mater. 25, 662−667 (2013).

K. Darmawikarta, B.-S. Lee, R. M. Shelby, S. Raoux, S. G. Bishop and J. R. Abelson, "Quasi-Equilibrium Size Distribution of Subcritical Nuclei in Amorphous Phase Change AgIn-Sb2Te," J. Appl. Phys. 114(3), 034904 (2013)

K. A. Arpin, M. D. Losego, A. N. Cloud, H. Ning, J. Mallek, N.P. Sergeant, L. Zhu, Z. Yu, B. Kalanyan, G. N. Parsons, G. S. Girolami, J. R. Abelson, S. Fan and P. V. Braun, "3D Self-Assembled Photonic Crystals with High Temperature Stability for Thermal Emission Modification," Nature Communications 4, 2630 (2013)

T. T. Li, T.-H. Lee, S. R. Elliott and J. R. Abelson, "Preferred Orientation of Nanoscale Order at the Surface of Amorphous Ge2Sb2Te5 Films," APL 103(20), 201907 (2013)

S. Babar, P. Zhang, L. M. Davis, E. Mohimi, G. S. Girolami and J. R. Abelson, "Controlling copper thin film morphology by growth inhibitor in low temperature chemical vapor deposition," submitted to JECS (2013)

K. Darmawikarta, T. T. Li, S. G. Bishop and J. R. Abelson, "Two Forms of Nanoscale Order in Amorphous GexSe1-x Alloys," Appl. Phys. Lett., 103(13) 131908 (2013)

T. T. Li, S. N. Bogle and J. R. Abelson, "Quantitative fluctuation microscopy in the STEM: Methods to identify, avoid and correct for artifacts," submitted to Microscopy and Microanalysis (2013)

A. N. Cloud, L. M. Davis, G. S. Girolami and J. R. Abelson, "Low-temperature CVD of iron, cobalt, and nickel nitride thin films from bis[di(tert-butyl)amido]metal(II) precursors and ammonia," submitted to JVST-A (2013)

B.-S. Lee, K. Darmawikarta, S. Raoux, Y.-H. Shih, Y. Zhu, S. G. Bishop, and J. R. Abelson, "Distribution of Nanoscale Nuclei in the Amorphous Dome of a Phase Change RAM," Appl. Phys. Lett. in press (2014)

B.-S. Lee, R. Shelby, S. Raoux, C. Rettner, G. Burr, S. N. Bogle, K. Darmawikarta, S. G. Bishop, and J. R. Abelson, "Nanoscale Nuclei in Phase Change Materials: Origin of Different Crystallization Mechanisms of Ge2Sb2Te5 and AgInSbTe" J. Appl. Phys., in press (2014)

  • University of Linkoping, Sweden, external Examiner, "Fakultetsopponent" (1995)
  • IBM University Partnership Award (1995-1997)
  • Xerox Senior Faculty Award, UIUC (1996)
  • Incomplete list of teachers ranked as excellent, UIUC (1993, 1997)
  • Engineering Council Award for Excellence in Advising, UIUC (1997)
  • Incomplete list of teachers ranked as excellent, UIUC (2000)
  • Fellow, American Vacuum Society (2004)