Cemal Basaran was 25 when he arrived in this country from Turkey, with $500 in his pocket, to begin his graduate studies.
Today, he’s a University at Buffalo civil engineering professor who studies how best to put together the components of a computer microchip.
He and his research team tell global corporations, such as Intel, and the U.S. military, how long the microchips that power their electronics will last.
This highly technical work involves nano-materials – such as a one-atom-thick layer of graphite known as graphene – that could replace traditional metals used in manufacturing.
Eventually, he believes, new smartphones, tablet computers and – yes – homes will be “grown,” not manufactured, in a process that mimics nature.
When Basaran isn’t thinking deep thoughts about the future of electronics, he retreats to a 117-acre farm he owns in Medina in Orleans County.
Basaran, who is married and has a teenage daughter, also serves as a consultant in patent-dispute trials and is an adviser to the founders of a Saudi Arabian university system.
He believes he owes much of his success to the opportunities granted to him by the country he moved to 29 years ago.
“It doesn’t matter if you come from a very poor family, or from a Third World country. If you are willing to work very hard, then the sky is the limit how much you can succeed,” Basaran said in an interview in his office on the UB North Campus.
Stephen T. Watson: Please describe your childhood.
Cemal Basaran: I was born in Turkey to Libyan parents. And I didn’t grow up in a wealthy or educated family. Both parents did not get an elementary school diploma. My father never went to school and my mother was taken out of school after second grade. He was working for the government slaughterhouse. But they told me that if you study hard you can have a better life.
SW: You got a scholarship to pursue graduate studies at MIT. What were your initial impressions of this country?
CB: First thing I remember, I was expecting much more violence, because we watched so many movies. And I was expecting everybody to be very rich.
SW: Did you like America from the start?
CB: Yeah, I loved it. I mean, I could see that there was so much freedom. Two things struck me immediately. Number one, there was freedom, freedom of speech. You can really intellectually express yourself without getting into trouble, because that didn’t exist at that time in Turkey. And there was also a merit society.
SW: You came here with only $500 to your name?
CB: And broken luggage. And one blue jean, one pair of shoes and three shirts. I remember my friend who was at Harvard at the time, he used to make fun of me. He says, “Girls are not going to date you because they’re going to call you ‘Guy with the Brown Sneakers,’ ” because I used to wear my brown sneakers every day. I wore them into pieces.
SW: Do you have a different perspective on this country as an immigrant?
CB: It’s very, very difficult to appreciate the United States if you were born and grew up here. My daughter cannot appreciate it, for example, because she takes it for granted.
SW: At UB, you run the electronic packaging lab. That has nothing to do with cardboard or plastic boxes, right?
CB: No. Packaging means putting together the components in a chip.
SW: The point is to make them able to stand up to stresses and higher temperatures while making the microchips smaller and more powerful?
CB: When we work for this project we work with Intel. Intel cares about one thing: How long a warranty shall we give? OK? But you cannot just come up with a number, one, two, three, four, five, six years. You have to obtain that number based on a significant amount of mathematics and physics and studies. So that is very, very important for the product. Most of our work over the last 20 years has been sponsored by the U.S. Navy. Navy is interested in, if I put a chip in a ship – everything is electronics now – how long can I keep it there? You don’t want the electronics to fail while it is on a mission. But when do you take it out?
SW: What’s the most interesting thing you’re working on?
CB: So I would say about five years ago we pretty much gave up on metals. I think traditional metals – copper, aluminum, gold – these things reached their productive use for civilization. So there are new materials, primarily covalent bond, like carbon nanotubes and graphene nanoribbon, that have on average 1,000 times better electrical and mechanical and thermal properties.
SW: How will that work?
CB: Historically, when we want to make copper wire, or a steel beam, what do we do? We go to the mine, we get the copper, we melt it and then we cast it. But with these nanomaterials, you grow them like you grow a tree. How do you grow a tree? You don’t go buy a bunch of lumber from Home Depot and make a tree. You buy a seed from Home Depot, you put it in the ground and it grows to be a tree. So in the next generation of these materials, you just put a seed and it turns out to be a supercomputer in the shape of an iPhone, for example. So it’s a completely different mentality. Some people call it mimicking nature.
SW: Is that like 3-D printing?
CB: Look at this way. Let’s say you take a seed for a tree or something, a walnut tree. If you can manipulate the genes in the tree, OK, you can end up with a two-story, single-family home. That is not too much of a stretch, actually. It is very easy. Why? Because this is what nature has been doing for millions of years, and nature has a much more sophisticated product at the end. So that is the next generation of research in electronics.
SW: In addition to your research, you consult on electronics patent disputes and you’re advising the founders of a university system in Saudi Arabia. Is money no object there?
CB: Financing is not a problem in Saudi Arabia. Human resources is a problem. Know-how is a problem. And also the gender gap is a problem. It is serving both men and women. Separate campuses. For example, it is very difficult to find female professors to go to Saudi Arabia, for obvious reasons. So then you have to use male professors to teach the girls. But the male professor cannot enter the classroom. So he has to teach from another room, and write on a piece of paper, so they can only see his hand and what he is writing. But they cannot see him and he cannot see them.
SW: You’ve worked at UB for 20 years, and your Trinitron computer monitor looks about that old. Why did you keep it?
CB: I think it is 15 years old. I never throw away anything until it breaks down. That is my rule. But I like the resolution too.
SW: Is your farm in Medina a working farm?
CB: Over the years I raised many animals. Right now I just take the subsidy. And I don’t plant anything. I’m on the direct-payment program, subsidy.
SW: What is farm life like?
CB: We still use well water. And we mostly heat with wood because it is much cheaper. Wood-burning stove from 1875. Actually the house was built in 1830. It doesn’t have any nails. There’s no cable. Recently we got satellite Internet, which is very weak.
SW: Did you choose to live off the grid?
CB: I am immersed in technology here all day. When I go home I don’t want to see technology.