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Semiconductor device that was UV laser grown and fabricated at UW-Madison by Shubhra Pasayat and Chirag Gupta
March 16, 2023

Electronic Essential

Written By: Jason Daley

We are contributing talent and tech to a much-needed domestic semiconductor industry revitalization.

During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, anyone in the market for a new car, refrigerator or even a video game console was more or less out of luck; not only did COVID-19 impact supply chains, but it also delayed production of the chips and semiconductor devices that control just about every electronic gadget on the market.

Those shortages, as well as a long-simmering desire to rebuild technology manufacturing in the United States after decades of offshoring, led to the CHIPS (Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors) and Science Act. Signed into law in August 2022, CHIPS is a $280 billion package designed to support semiconductor chip manufacturing in the United States. By many accounts, it is the most significant investment in science and technology in generations.

While a large portion of the funding will go to private companies to help them build and expand microchip fabrication facilities in the United States, the act also provides a historic amount of funding to government agencies—including the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and NASA—that support university research.

In the next five years, billions of dollars in new funding will go to those agencies, and much of it will support basic and applied university-led research that will benefit the industry through technology advances and training for the future workforce. Universities with advanced facilities, talented faculty, industry ties and a strong student body—like UW-Madison—are poised to lead the way in this effort.

“This will have a big, big effect on the College of Engineering,” says Oliver Schmitz, college associate dean for research innovation and director of the Grainger Institute for Engineering. “There’s a huge opportunity on the chip side that requires us to reorient and adjust our approach. And the science act touches almost everything we do in the college, including energy research, manufacturing technology, computer and data science, and almost every expertise our faculty have.”

The college is already gearing up to take advantage of the new investments. It’s leading a push to establish a semiconductor science center that will bring UW-Madison semiconductor efforts together. Many departments are already revising their curricula to enhance or add semiconductor-related courses and options. Dozens of faculty are already writing white papers and concept papers and consulting with nascent consortia to ensure UW-Madison is at the forefront of this emerging research area.

Shubhra Pasayat, an assistant professor in electrical and computer engineering, specializes in fabricating semiconductor devices, including new types of light-emitting diodes and ultraviolet lasers used in advanced communications. She says UW-Madison is one of a small handful of U.S. institutions with the facilities to fabricate and study next-generation semiconducting materials like the ones she handles.

“There are a lot of tools available here that are not always available in an academic setting,” says Pasayat, pointing out the college’s Nanoscale Fabrication Center, Soft Materials Characterization Lab, large array of cleanrooms, and two metalorganic chemical vapor deposition systems (rarely found outside of industry) used to grow layers of semiconducting material.

With this equipment, she explains, researchers can transform an idea to an industry-ready product all on one campus; they can synthesize a new semiconducting material, test and characterize it, integrate it into circuits or devices, and try it out in a full electronic system. “We feel that UW-Madison is in the right spot where we have the existing infrastructure which we can leverage to advance our research,” she says.

The university also has the talent to take advantage of the coming investment in next-gen semiconductors. Schmitz says that strategic hiring in the last few years has brought in new faculty with experience in semiconductor technology and manufacturing, including Pasyat; ECE Assistant Professor Chirag Gupta, a former engineer for the semiconductor device manufacturer Maxim Integrated; ECE Associate Professor Umit Yusuf Ogras, a former research scientist at Intel; and others.

A large cohort of world-class researchers across the College of Engineering is already working on areas vital to the future of the semiconductor industry. For instance, Michael Arnold, the Beckwith Bascom Professor in materials science and engineering, is a world expert on carbon nanotubes, which are each about 1/10,000 the width of a human hair. Replacing silicon transistors on computer chips with these tiny tubes could boost the speed and efficiency of microchips five to 10 times. “That’s a big deal, especially in mobile device computing and massive server farms that use tremendous amounts of electricity,” says Arnold, who has patented a process for attaching and aligning these tubes on silicon wafers and is already working with industry partners. “Energy-efficient computing is pretty important these days.”

The College of Engineering also has many faculty working on thin films and 2D materials, which are just one atom thick. When properly tuned or when layered with one another, these materials can be used as memory, sensors, solar cells and many other devices that currently rely on silicon. And because they are thin, they can be used in products like wearable devices, flexible displays and biosensors.

Other researchers are exploring classes of semiconductors that simply outperform silicon. Pasayat and Gupta, for instance, are working with gallium nitride and gallium oxide, two semiconductors the industry is especially interested in. Their abilities to handle higher power than silicon makes them ideal for applications like ultrafast electric car chargers and more powerful components for 6G and 7G communications, as well as the ultraviolet lasers Pasayat has developed.

It’s not just faculty who will help drive the reenergized semiconductor industry. UW-Madison students are already in high demand across the tech sector. According to Inside Higher Ed, the CHIPS Act will provide STEM-related higher education and workforce development at levels not seen since the era of the Space Race. Schmitz says the need for more highly qualified engineers will skyrocket. That’s among the reasons the college is increasing its student body and is pursuing partnerships with technical schools, like Madison Area Technical College, that can help lead more students to four-year or advanced degrees.

Alumnus Dave Hemker (BSChE ’84), a retired senior vice president and chief technology officer for Lam Research Corporation, which produces equipment for the semiconductor industry, says he expects the investment will help universities create a pipeline to the semiconductor industry of the best and brightest engineers from many disciplines, including electrical, computer, chemical, industrial, and materials science and engineering. “Having really, really good engineers that have been trained well in problem solving and who can work in teams and communicate is going to win the day,” he says. “And that’s what Madison’s always done best, in my opinion, and across disciplines.”

Featured image caption: A semiconductor device that was UV laser grown and fabricated at UW-Madison by ECE assistant professors Shubhra Pasayat and Chirag Gupta. Credit: Todd Brown.