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CONTACT: Ace Etheridge, 505-845-7767,


Sandia Theorist Peter Feibelman Wins Top Physics Prize

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- A Sandia National Laboratories theoretical physicist who says he wants his science to make a difference "in the real world" has been selected as the recipient of one of the top honors in physics.

Peter Feibelman, a Distinguished Member of the Technical Staff in Sandia's Surface and Interface Science Department, has been named the recipient of the 1996 Medard W. Welch Award, one of the highest honors the American Vacuum Society can bestow. The award, which consists of a $5,000 cash prize, a struck gold medal, and a certificate bearing the award citation, will be presented to Feibelman during the society’s national symposium in Philadelphia in October.

The citation reads: "For his insightful predictions and explanations of surface phenomena based on first principles calculations."

A letter to Feibelman from AVS President William Sproul and AVS Board of Trustees Chair John Coburn said, "Your selection reflects the quality and impact your work has had in surface and thin film science over the years."

Feibelman, who has been with Sandia almost 22 years, has devoted most of his career to the study of surface phenomena. This subject has significance for many aspects of Sandia's mission, for example in the preparation of materials required for advanced microelectronics applications, and in the need to understand how to stabilize components against materials failure over long periods of time.

Feibelman's earliest efforts led to remarkable predictions concerning the interaction between electromagnetic waves and electrons at the surface of a metal. Verified years later by experimentalist Ward Plummer (Oak Ridge National Laboratory and University of Tennessee, Knoxville) and his students, Feibelman's theory was the first major step beyond Fresnel's laws of reflection and refraction in describing how light behaves as it crosses a surface.

In 1978, Feibelman's work with Michael Knotek (now Associate Lab Director at Pacific Northwest Laboratory) on the disintegration of oxide surfaces bombarded by ionizing radiation revealed new "laws" of radiation damage.

In 1989, Feibelman was wondering how atoms migrate from place to place on a surface -- this is important if one wants to construct a crystal one layer at a time. Using a unique computer code of his devising, Feibelman showed that atoms on a surface don't necessarily roll around like ball bearings on a bumpy surface, but may implant themselves in the surface while pushing a surface atom out. Sandia experimentalist Gary Kellogg used field ion microscopy to put this idea to the test. His experiment showed that Feibelman's substitution process is indeed operative for platinum atoms moving on certain platinum surfaces.

Plummer, who nominated Feibelman for the AVS award, says the significance of the Sandia physicist's work cannot be overstated.

"Peter Feibelman has had a larger effect on my scientific career than any other person," Plummer says. "I think that's probably what makes Peter unique as a theorist: the impact he's had on other people -- Gary Kellogg at Sandia, Tsong in China, just many, many people -- where Peter has done some kind of detailed first principles calculation and from that extracted predictions and understanding that allows experimentalists . . . to go do something. All the stuff I did on surface plasmons, for example, was really due to Peter's insights."

Feibelman says he appreciates the close relationship that exists at Sandia between theorists and experimentalists.

"Since the first day I walked into the Labs," he says, "the message has been 'you are here to leverage our experimental resources.' But this isn't a burden. The interplay of experiment and theory is what makes Sandia a very desirable place to work."

In Feibelman's view, "there are two aspects to doing science: choosing a good problem and getting an answer." He says that being a theorist in Sandia's world-class surface experimental group makes the first part easy -- "inspiration is always coming out of somebody's lab."

Bob Eagan, Vice President of Sandia's of Electronics, Materials Research, and Components Division, notes the significant contributions Feibelman has made to Sandia's mission.

"Peter is one of our most outstanding scientists," Eagan says. "During his career, he has successfully demonstrated how physical theory and high performance computing can be linked with experiment to produce real advances in our understanding of materials structure and properties. In addition to honoring Peter's world-class achievements, the AVS award focuses attention on Sandia's strength in conducting multidisciplinary research that supports our Department of Energy (DOE) mission."

The AVS award is just the latest in a number of significant recognitions Feibelman has earned for his work. He was the 1989 recipient of the Davisson-Germer Prize of the American Physical Society, "For his pioneering work in developing the theory of electromagnetic fields at surfaces." He won a 1994 DOE Basic Energy Sciences (BES) award for "Sustained Outstanding Research in Solid State Physics: Surface Atom Energetics," and a 1991 BES award with Gary Kellogg for "Outstanding Scientific Accomplishment: Surface Diffusion by Atomic Substitution."

Sandia National Laboratories is a multiprogram national laboratory operated by a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corporation for the U.S. Department of Energy. With main facilities in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Livermore, California, Sandia has broad-based research and development programs contributing to national defense, energy and environmental technologies, and economic competitiveness.

Media Contacts:

A.C. "Ace" Etheridge, 505/844-7767

Bill Murphy, 505/845-0845

Technical Contact: Peter Feibelman, 505/844-6706

Ace Etheridge,

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Last modified: June 12, 2001

Sandia National Laboratories is operated by Lockheed Martin Corp. for the U.S. Department of Energy.