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semiconductor device
April 4, 2023

Advancing the next generation of semiconductor research and education

Written By: Jason Daley

In August 2022, Congress passed the bipartisan Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors (CHIPS) and Science Act, a package that authorizes tens of billions of dollars to boost the U.S. semiconductor industry, catalyze research and development, create regional high-tech hubs and improve STEM workforce development.

It’s a monumental, once-in-a-generation investment that will transform the American tech sector and accelerate many different types of research. As implementation of the act begins, the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is taking a role in new multi-institutional R&D efforts and developing new pathways for students to take advantage of emerging opportunities.

“We’re being stretched, as a discipline, to be responsive to the world around us and the CHIPS Act has brought this home in new ways,” says Professor Daniel van der Weide, who is involved in several of ECE’s CHIPS-related projects. “As a faculty, we are confronted with these challenges, and I think it’s our responsibility to respond to them in creative ways.”

Making an impact

In total, ECE has 23 faculty members working in solid-state electronics/quantum technologies and computer systems/architecture, including seven new tenure-track and tenured faculty hired in the past three years. Among those are Associate Professor Umit Yusuf Ogras, an expert in multi-core computer chip architectures and former research scientist at Intel; Assistant Professors Shubhra Pasayat and Chirag Gupta, experts in wide-bandgap semiconductor materials and devices; Assistant Professor Ying Wang, who is leading advances in two-dimensional semiconductors; Assistant Professor Eric Tervo who engineers semiconductor materials and devices for energy conversion and thermal management; Assistant Professor Bobby Jacobberger who explores 0, 1 and 2D materials for next-generation semiconductor devices; and Assistant Professor Jinia Roy (joining in summer 2023) who brings industrial expertise in power electronics.

Shubhra Pasayat
Shubhra Pasayat is one of seven new faculty in ECE bringing new strengths in semiconductor related-research. Credit: Jason Daley.

In preparing to take advantage of the CHIPS Act, ECE faculty are aggressively pursuing multiple academic and industry partnerships, the primary funding mechanisms for the act. One is the Department of Defense Microelectronics Commons, a $1.63 billion, five-year program that will fund up to nine regional hubs focused on creating direct pathways to commercialization for U.S. microelectronics researchers and designers, taking projects from “lab to fab.”

ECE faculty are collaborating on proposals and white papers for various projects, with contributions from almost 20 College of Engineering faculty members. They bring a wide breadth of expertise to these efforts, including Lynn H. Matthias Professor and Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor Zhenqiang “Jack” Ma who is developing next-generation semiconductor materials and Michael Arnold, a materials science and engineering professor with expertise in carbon nanotubes. Assistant Professor Bhuvana Krishnaswamy and van der Weide are focusing on 5G and 6G communication applications, with many others lending technical expertise and advice.

More than 20 ECE faculty are also participating in the American Semiconductor Innovation Coalition (ASIC), a group of 200 institutions guiding the development of the National Semiconductor Technology Center and The National Advanced Packaging Manufacturing Program, two public-private partnerships established by the CHIPS Act. These centers aim to develop and prototype advanced semiconductors, provide support for startups and small businesses, and develop workforce training programs.

Beyond those large-scale collaborations, many faculty members are developing new relationships with companies in the chips industry and pursuing research that will advance microelectronics. Van der Weide, for instance, is collaborating with industry partners to develop the Wisconsin Integrated Semiconductor Collaboratory, a cloud-native design that will allow users to collaborate, test and visualize integrated circuits, bringing chip design into the modern era and providing a powerful new educational platform for students.

Professor Luke Mawst, Ma, Pasayat, Gupta and Tervo are collaborating with local semiconductor companies to advance novel III-V and III-nitride semiconductor devices, which could lead to brighter LEDs, high power electronics, new types of lasers and more efficient energy converters.

A teaching moment

The other significant element of the CHIPS Act is its commitment to workforce development, which for ECE means support for new elements of the curriculum and partnerships that give students opportunities to join the high-tech semiconductor industry.

Next generation wide-bandgap semiconducting devices, like these LEDs made from gallium nitride, are a strength at the UW-Madison ECE department. This device was UV laser grown and fabricated at UW-Madison by ECE assistant professors Shubhra Pasayat and Chirag Gupta. Credit: Todd Brown.

ECE faculty are part of the planning team for the American Semiconductor Academy (ASA) initiative, a consortium of 200 universities and 1,500 corporations putting together a comprehensive workforce development program designed to close the microelectronics industry’s widening talent gap. Ma, Jack St. Clair Kilby Associate Professor Mikhail Kats and Assistant Professor Jennifer Choy were part of a team that co-wrote an ASA position paper successfully lobbying for dedicated funds in the CHIPS Act for workforce development. ECE faculty are also positioned to be part of an ASA funding request from the National Science Foundation to establish exemplar courses and modernize curricula.

Though these initiatives are still in their early stage, ECE is already looking to the future. The department is developing a semiconductor engineering option for both electrical and computer engineering undergrads. And because the industry will have a huge need for all sorts of engineers, including students from chemical, mechanical, materials and industrial engineering, the department is working on an undergraduate certificate in semiconductor engineering for students outside ECE.

The act is also leading to other exciting changes; ECE is developing an exemplar course focusing on wide bandgap semiconductor materials for high power applications, a department strength. In spring 2023, the department also deepened its semiconductor offerings, piloting ECE 901: Advanced Semiconductor Devices, taught by Gupta, and Special Topics ECE/ME 601: Printed and Flexible Electronics, taught by Assistant Professor Joseph Andrews, giving students an opportunity to study fast-growing sectors of the industry.

Existing courses are also being refreshed, including ECE 555: Digital Circuits and Components taught by Ogras. Recently, that course received a design software upgrade, and in future may expand, allowing students to design, fabricate and test chips over the course of two semesters. And a new semiconductor devices and fabrication track in the department’s accelerated master’s degree program will allow graduates to get a foothold in the semiconductor industry as well.

The result of these curriculum updates will be students who are workforce-ready and able to take advantage of new opportunities in the domestic semiconductor industry. “Companies will be looking to hire a lot of students and those students need to be educated in semiconductors,” says Chirag Gupta. “I think the educational curriculum and framework are absolutely needed. I think this is great news for semiconductors as well as for students who are interested in them.”

Featured image caption: ECE has many faculty researching semiconductors and semiconductor devices, including Umit Yusuf Ogras, whose lab designs energy efficient mobile and flexible electronics. Credit: Joel Hallberg.