NSF awards team $2M to develop faster and more efficient semiconductors

10/26/2023 11:17:22 AM Bruce Adams

Written by Bruce Adams

Tiny toy people in blue and florescent yellow suits investigate and repair a semiconductor computer chip.America needs computer chips.

The COVID-19 pandemic supply shortfalls and geopolitical issues cast a bright light on the decline of semiconductor manufacturing in the United States, down from 37 percent of the global total in 1993 to about 12 percent now. The Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors and Science Act of 2022 (CHIPS Act) directed $280 billion in spending, with the bulk on scientific research and development.

America needs better computer chips.

Mobile devices are ubiquitous; we carry them around in a pocket or purse and use them for everyday tasks. However, they are connected to centralized servers and thus cannot learn much about or adjust to their complicated and changing environments independently.

Robots and autonomous devices are developing at a rapid pace. They carry the same limitations as other mobile devices: bound to the financially and environmentally costly server structure. For the future, we would like to give them independent “brains” through the development of compact, more powerful, energy-efficient, and cost-effective semiconductor devices.

“We need better materials, we need more energy-efficient new analog memory device concepts, and also we need to put those devices into functional circuit architectures and run a new type of machine learning algorithm, designed with the unique characteristics of our new hardware in mind,” said Principal Investigator Qing Cao of Illinois Materials Science & Engineering.

The National Science Foundation has awarded a team, including University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign CS Professor and  Co-Principal Investigator Saugata Ghose, a 3-year, $2M grant under the FuSe-Future of Semiconductors program. The team includes Co-Principal Investigators Shaloo Rakheja from the Illinois Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory, Curtis Shoaf of Illinois Physics and Parkland College, and  Amit Trivedi from the AEON Lab at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC). The grant is part of the $45M NSF program to “enable rapid progress in new semiconductor technologies and manufacturing as well as workforce development.” Cao said, “We created the team with the vision to realize future computing technologies for mobile AI by integrating efforts from all different segments of microelectronics. We recruited people working on areas ranging from fundamental materials (Qing Cao), devices (Shaloo Rakheja), and circuits (Amit Trivedi) to architectures and algorithms (Saugata Ghose). Team members are affiliated with multidisciplinary research units, including the Seitz Materials Research Lab, Holonyak Micro & Nano Technology Lab, and Coordinated Science Lab. These research units, which have a culture and heritage of supporting research and development across departmental lines, help foster our team, uniquely positioned with complementary expertise to address the most critical challenges for future semiconductors.”

Cao noted, “There’s going to be a strong demand for students at the Ph.D. level to support research and development. But at the same time, they also need students, maybe with associate’s degrees from the community college level, to serve as technicians or process engineers.” Community colleges are often lacking the capacity to train students in microelectronics. The project includes a pilot program where students from Parkland College in Champaign can attend four weeks of training at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) facilities, gaining a certificate and access to the Grainger College of Engineering’s career placement services.

The team is also developing new curricula for UIC and UIUC courses to provide computer science students with a deeper understanding of devices they can use to research and innovate in microelectronics.




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This story was published October 26, 2023.