July 14, 2006

The Next Big Threat To Silicon Valley?

By: by Ed Sperling, Electronic News


Silicon Valley’s next big competitor may come from a lot closer to home.

New York State’s College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering graduated its first nanoscience engineers this year as part of an evolving curriculum of multidisciplinary degrees ranging from nanoeconomics to nanoengineering. But unlike at most schools, where students work with older generation cast-off equipment donated by companies, the students at the Albany NanoTech Center are working with billions of dollars of new equipment, some of it still in the alpha or beta testing stages.

The effort represents the tightest collaboration ever undertaken between a global industry and a state-funded university, with the goal being to fuse together silos of expertise that are rapidly becoming obsolete as chip developers begin working with atomic-sized devices. So far, 150 companies, including IBM, Applied Materials, Tokyo Electron and ASML, have offices and labs at the center. Sometimes the companies work in sealed-off clean rooms for competitive reasons and sometimes they work together to solve problems. But university researchers have access across all areas to conduct independent research or to collaborate with the companies.

“One of the things you see first here is that we have constellations instead of departments,” said Michael Fancher, director of economic outreach and associate professor at the university. “We’re preparing the next scientific leaders.”

The buy-in from the global electronics industry readily supports that statement. Virtually all of the major players have offices on campus. Most donate new equipment, or at least subsidize it, and many bring their own to work on new projects. The university has just installed an ultrasonic force microscope developed by Cambridge University, for example-one of only two in the world. It’s also experimenting with new EUV light sources for lithography and immersion lithography with equipment now being tested by companies such as Intel and TSMC.

About 70 percent of the university’s research is focused on pushing lithography and wafer manufacturing down to the next process node. The other 30 percent is tied to creating nanostructures such as nanotubes and nanowires by processes such as atomic layer deposition.

One of the first things a visitor notices at the university is that space is not an issue. Plans are already under way to expand the number of clean rooms and research facilities with new buildings slated for construction. How far out the road map for construction goes is a matter of conjecture.

Digging down deeper, it becomes clear that the number of students is far lower than at many other schools because the curriculum is still in the formative stages and because much of it is at the cutting edge of research. The current number is 125, which will double over the next two years. The faculty currently consists of 40 professors-mostly retired from the electronics industry or on sabbatical or loan to the university-with the number slated to ramp to 100 as the student population doubles.

“This kind of work isn’t just going to be limited to electronics, either,” said Fancher. “You take the best practices for high yield and low cost and you can transfer them to other industries. All industries will have the same issues that electronics is dealing with.”

IBM, which does consulting for a variety of industries, is actively looking at such developments and trying to fuse many aspects together. “The cycles of learning can be much faster here,” said Jean Wynne, advisory engineer for manufacturing at IBM’s office at the university. “You get five to six times the leverage by being here. The state of New York deals with ASML, TEL and Applied materials, they put it all together and then you get recovery of that research from the research partners.”

What that research will ultimately determine is unknown, but virtually all companies interviewed at the facility believe very costly research can only be done in a university setting such as this-which may help explain the volume of multi-million dollar machines being set up all over the expanding campus. At best, innovative ideas for developing new chips will result from this research. At the very least, judging from the investment of time and money, many companies are taking this opportunity very seriously.