Two factors will make the semiconductor fabrication center to be built by the University of Arkansas unique: It will contain every part of the supply chain for the emerging silicon carbide market, and it will make that cutting-edge, expensive technology available to external researchers.
And down the road, the center could spark the creation of high-tech startups, said those closest to the project.
The project already has a vote of confidence from the U.S. government in the form of $23.3 million in federal grants.
Principal investigator Alan Mantooth, a distinguished professor at the UA at Fayetteville, said the center will attract out-of-state academic talent to Arkansas and UA students to a growing sector of the economy.
The project could also help the United States avoid a global shortage of silicon carbide microchips like the shortage of traditional silicon chips, said co-principal investigator John Ransom, who is director of technology for silicon carbide at semiconductor manufacturer X-FAB in Lubbock, Texas. X-FAB is a project partner.
The silicon carbide chips that will be made at the new center can handle high temperatures and have a wide range of applications as a result.
They can be used in electric vehicles, for solar and wind power generation, in NASA’s planned missions to the planet Venus, for mobile military equipment and more. These chips are used by companies that include Tesla and John Deere, Ransom said.
The first five-year, $17.9 million grant for the project comes from the National Science Foundation and was announced early last month. A few weeks later, UA researchers announced that another one-year, $5.4 million grant would come from the Army.
For the past decade, UA researchers have been ordering these chips from Sweden, Germany and the United Kingdom. But Mantooth said the new center will have the “whole value chain,” producing integrated circuits, sensors and devices, including prototypes. It will also package the items and test them.
“Arkansas is the one and only place in America that will have one-stop shopping,” Mantooth said.
He said the center is expected to be fully operational in three years.
Mantooth said it’s possible that the center will produce researchers who invent products while there and commercialize them by founding startups that spin off from the university.
Project partner X-FAB, the Texas company that Ransom works for, will help those inventor-entrepreneurs by giving them access to high-volume manufacturing when they reach that point of development.
The project will in turn offer X-FAB a chance to engage in research and development. He said the center will be doing lower-volume manufacturing, the kind needed for R&D and that isn’t financially feasible for X-FAB to do itself because certain equipment costs millions.
Access to an up-and-coming talent pool is another plus for the company. It’s difficult to find people with the skills it needs, Ransom said.
“So it’s talent development. That is a huge part of it. It really is. It’s access to the latest-generation tools,” he said. “And then it’s also the feeder [fabrication facility] for us to be able to have a place for researchers who are really trying to build a business. We have a place for them to go.”
The university is already recruiting students to study at the center, and giving them the chance to pursue employment in a growing sector of the economy, Mantooth said.
“There’s great opportunities here, and we’re going to be educating students not just from Arkansas but from all over the country,” he said. “We’re sort of flipping the tables a little bit in terms of we’ve sent a lot of our students to different schools around the world for unique experiences. Now we’re going to be hosting them.”
The larger grant includes funding to host up to 200 students, Mantooth said.
More Efficient Chips
The possibilities for silicon carbide technology appear to be endless.
It can be used in electric vehicles and aircraft, for NASA’s planned Venus missions, to modernize the power grid, for geothermal drilling and more, Mantooth said.
Ransom said the silicon carbide market has spiked dramatically from 2020-21 and is piggy-backing on a boom in electric vehicles as governments everywhere subsidize or even mandate their use. More heavy-duty and passenger electric vehicles are being produced by the larger automakers, he said.
Silicon carbide is more efficient than traditional silicon and also reliable, he said. Manufacturing those chips here will help the industry avoid a chip shortage for electric vehicles, Ransom said.
Meanwhile, Mantooth described the Venus application more thoroughly. “You’re talking about a 500 degrees [Celsius]-type of environment, which is five times boiling,” he said. “And so, when you go to a planet like that, it’s very, very harsh, but these electronics will survive there whereas normal silicon electronics would be dead on impact.”
The longest mission to Venus has lasted only a couple of hours because of the searing temperatures, the professor said.
Yet another application is for natural gas turbines that produce electricity. Having electronics that monitor performance of those turbines so they don’t have to be taken offline for maintenance prematurely could save operators up to $1 million a day, Mantooth said.
“We are trying to pack more power electronics into a very tight space. That means that they share the thermal, and they can sort of self-heat and get hot,” he said. “As a result, you want electronics that can survive in those compact spaces because we’re trying to build them smaller and lighter weight and more compact, so that the plane flies farther, and the car goes farther on a charge.”
“It’s a lot of applications, actually,” he said. “It’s just where we haven’t traditionally had electronics as much in some cases. So it enables so much more.”
Years in the Making
Now is a good time for his long-term vision to be executed, Mantooth said, because there is renewed interest from the government in high-temperature electronics.
The groundwork for the project began about three years ago.
His team submitted a grant application to the NSF for its new program designed to fund “midscale infrastructure” projects in two categories: projects ranging from $6 million to $20 million and projects ranging from $20 million to $100 million, Mantooth said.
He said that application for the first round of the every-two-years program wasn’t successful, but the NSF encouraged the team to reapply.
While waiting for the second round, the team worked with Arkansas’ congressional delegation to secure the $5.4 million in Army grants.
In January, the UA submitted a pre-proposal for the NSF grant. The university was chosen to submit a full proposal in April and was informed in July that its application was “under negotiation.” The news became official in September.
The $17.9 million grant was about 10% less than the approximately $20 million the UA requested, Mantooth said. But his team already has the first $8 million to spend. It will receive the rest when certain milestones are met.
Their next step is to put in temporary fabrication facilities, buying and installing equipment worth millions, he said.
There is a need for new lab space and that may come in the form of a new building or an addition to an existing building, Mantooth said.
For the first couple of years, work will be done in existing lab spaces that will be remodeled to be configured correctly. He is hoping the remodeling will take three to four months.
The center is expected to move to a new space in the third year of the grant, which is likely when it would start manufacturing, Mantooth said.