Sematech, Texas form center for next-gen semiconductor research


By Hank Hogan

AUSTIN, Texas—The late March announcement of the creation of the Advanced Materials Research Center (AMRC) here marked a $40 million down payment on a $200 million promise from Texas Governor Rick Perry to the semiconductor research consortium, Sematech, Inc.

It also created a framework for the University of Texas system and other Lone Star State universities to cooperate with Sematech in investigating leading-edge materials and capabilities for next-generation semiconductors. In addition, the AMRC will also allow the universities to do cutting edge research in nanotechnology, biotechnology and related areas.

As a demonstration, a lab technician views the state of Texas imprinted on a chip through a Polyvar SC microscope. The new Advanced Materials Research Center is a big boost for the Lone Star State, allowing the University of Texas system and other in-state universities to team with Sematech, Inc. in researching next-generation semiconductors, nanotechnoloy, and biotechnology.
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What the center won't do, at least directly, is lead to any real expansion of cleanroom capacity.

"The AMRC's work can be supported within existing facilities at Sematech," explains Dan McGowan, a spokesman for the research consortium. "Sematech's existing cleanroom, which contains 44,000 square feet of ISO Class 3 space and 100 percent HEPA filtration coverage, is more than adequate for today's cleanliness standards."

Sanjay Banerjee, director of the University of Texas at Austin's Microelectronics Research Center, agrees and notes that the university, which is one of the institutions involved in the AMRC, has 12,000 square feet of ISO Class 5 cleanroom space. But Banerjee adds that this doesn't mean that there won't be additional equipment and other upgrades.

"We just got an e-beam litho tool and will soon get a nano-imprint tool," he says. "We will coordinate future equipment acquisitions closely with Sematech to leverage our funds."

The AMRC's five-year mission is to boldly go where no commercial semiconductor manufacturer has gone before. Specifically, the center will seek to push the workhorse of modern electronics—the CMOS transistor—to its limit and beyond. Researchers will also pursue projects aimed at solving the problem of wiring within a semiconductor device. Lithography, such as the new optical-immersion techniques, will also be a major focus.

But the AMRC is not planned to simply facilitate the extension of current technology. For its part, Sematech will focus on semiconductor technology. The universities will look at nanotechnology and biotechnology. Banerjee expects that the university contribution will largely be semiconductor-related in the first year, with only about 30 percent of the funding going to nanotechnology research.

"We expect the mix at universities to evolve into less near-term semiconductor work, and more long-term, speculative high-risk work in nano, bio, and so on," Banerjee says.

Forecasts released at the time of the announcement are that the center will lead to 4,000 jobs in Texas over the next ten years. Some, if not many, of those will involve cleanrooms.

But first the AMRC will have to overcome technical challenges, and sources for the remaining $160 million will have to be worked out. Additional financial support could come from the State of Texas, the federal government, private sources and other governmental entities.