The University of Arkansas will break ground Friday on a one-of-a-kind silicon carbide chip research and fabrication facility in south Fayetteville.
The planned Multi-User Silicon Carbide Research and Fabrication Facility, or MUSiC, will be located in the Arkansas Research & Technology Park. The 18,660-SF facility is a long-time labor of love for U of A electrical engineering professor Alan Mantooth and was made possible by a $19 million grant from the National Science Foundation and another $5.4 million from the Army Research Laboratory.
Mantooth promoted the MUSiC project at the CHIPS America summit Thursday at the Don Tyson Center for Agricultural Sciences in Fayetteville. U of A Chancellor Charles Robinson, U.S. Rep. Steve Womack and state Commerce Secretary Hugh McDonald also spoke of the importance of the MUSiC facility at the summit.
“The key is it is not like any other facility in the world,” Mantooth said. “I know because I’ve been trying to find one to use for the last 10 years. They don’t exist.”
The facility will research, develop and build silicon carbide semiconductor chips that can be used in a myriad of products. Mantooth said silicon carbide chips are more useful than traditional silicon chips because they can stand temperatures up to 500 degree Celsius, meaning they can be used in natural gas turbines for example.
“We are making possible what silicon can not do,” Mantooth said. “We are making possible the impossible. That is what is different. “Arkansas has been one of the cornerstones of this nation … in the silicon carbide space. Now it just continues to grow.”
Mantooth said the NSF grant allowed the UA to buy the equipment needed for the facility that, coupled with other grants, have run the total funding to approximately $30 million. Mantooth said the United States was the pioneer in semiconductor chip production, it has since seen production “bleed” away to other countries.
At the summit, Mantooth showed a list of companies, other universities and government agencies that have already agreed to partner with the UA on the MUSiC facility. MUSiC will be a “low-volume prototyping” facility, Mantooth said, meaning businesses can have a chip produced, try it out on a small sample and then switch over to large-scale manufacturing.
“This fabrication facility will be a magnet to economic development that we seek,” Mantooth said. “We will do research and development, of course. This will be a low-volume prototyping facility that all companies do before going to high volume manufacturing. It fills a manufacturing gap, allows them to try their ideas and then scale.
“We have a chance to bring those big and small players all across the spectrum. [They told us], ‘If you build it, we will come.’ They are lining up and we are ready to go.”
Mantooth said the MUSiC facility “is a 20-year dream” and will feature concepts that have never been done before. Not only will the facility have the entire production line — from research to production to testing to mass production — on site, but each of the six laboratories will have virtual reality and digital equipment capabilities so students in another state can participate in the research and development being done.
Robinson said the MUSiC facility is more proof that the university is making strides in its research investments. Robinson said the university has increased its research expenditures by $20 million in the past year.
“We are excited at the University of Arkansas because our research excellence and commitment is on full display,” Robinson said. “We know we have some of the best talent with regards to faculty in the world. We are excited that the world is now paying greater attention to the excellence that is happening here every day at the University of Arkansas.”
Womack said northwest Arkansas was a perfect spot for such an investment because he called the region an “entrepreneurial center of excellence.”
“This is an ideal place for innovation and investments into the micro electronics field,” Womack said. “It is clear to see the potential we have in this region. The university has positioned itself to be the preeminent university research location for micro electronics.
“One of the reasons I believe the U A is the ideal place for continued micro electronics investment is its proven track record in partnering with industry and successfully leveraging northwest Arkansas’ stellar entrepreneurial ecosystem.”