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In Upstate N.Y., Quest for Next-Gen Microchip Is Underway

SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Albany has purchased a new plasma technology tool from Oxford Instruments that could help researchers develop a computer chip containing 1 trillion transistors.

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Researchers work inside one of the cleanrooms at the NanoTech Complex on the campus of SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Albany, N.Y. The cleanrooms resemble some of the operations found in chip factories. As part of research and development efforts, the chip creation and manufacturing processes are tested, refined and documented here before mass production of the semiconductors begin at massive production facilities like Global Foundries.
Photo courtesy of SUNY Polytechnic Institute
Less is more at SUNY Polytechnic Institute, but the formula can be difficult to comprehend.

More than a billion dollars’ worth of machinery is located inside a 1.65-million-square-foot facility where academic and industry researchers will spend thousands of hours looking for ways to fit 1 trillion transistors onto a single microchip the size of your fingernail.

“Ultimately,” said Christophe Vallée, SUNY Poly innovation scientist, “all of this is to make one thing that will sell for, say, maybe $5.”

Another number to consider: The NanoTech Complex at SUNY Poly is about 3,000 miles east of Silicon Valley, though the latest and greatest semiconductors were developed here, in the capital of New York state. The next generation is expected from this same facility in Albany with the help of a new tool that uses plasma technology.

According to a recent news release, SUNY Poly bought a FlexAI Plasma ALD tool from the England-based Oxford Instruments Plasma Technology company. The machine, about half the size of a small room, is expected to be in operation by the end of summer, Deputy Director Ross Goodman of SUNY Poly's Center for Advanced Technology in Nanomaterials and Nano Electronics told Government Technology on Wednesday during an interview and tour of the complex.

As with much of the other equipment and spaces inside the NanoTech Complex, the Oxford tool will be used to teach students, train a workforce, and conduct research and development activities. Within all those functions lies the unique challenge of establishing a process to make the 1-trillion-transistor chip; Samsung and IBM’s 50-billion-transistor chip, still an industry leader, was previously developed here, Goodman said.

SUNY Poly’s partners include the various companies that use the facility for research and development purposes, along with the New York Center for Research, Economic Advancement, Technology, Engineering and Science (NY CREATES), which oversees the Albany NanoTech site. With SUNY Poly’s research and development partnership at its Albany and Utica campuses, coupled with the massive Micron Technology plant under construction in nearby Syracuse, upstate New York is on track to become a global player in microchip development, Goodman said.

“The processes of record are made here,” he said. “SUNY Poly wants to become a world leader in that area.”

Although the microchips found in phones, computers, vehicles, dishwashers and other appliances vary in size, they are commonly produced in a boilerplate fashion wherein a thin silicon "wafer" tray undergoes a process of chemical reactions so that it can hold conductive metals and other materials that form the transistors on a chip. Plasma, or heated gas, is applied to fine-tune the chip’s design and remove material to make room for more transistors. In scientific terms, SUNY Poly officials said, the Oxford tool allows for atomic-scale smoothing processes and the fabrication of ultra-thin closed films at the nanometer scale.

This process, called “etching,” is not new, but it is becoming more refined, explained Michael Fancher, director of SUNY Poly’s Advanced Manufacturing Performance Center. Inside the chamber that contains the silicon tray, radio frequencies “excite” the plasma in the same way that gasoline would respond to a match. With that energy in play, precise chemical processes allow for greater selectivity in adding and removing materials in the tray without damaging any parts of the chip.

“Atomic layer deposition was established over 10 years ago,” Fancher told Government Technology. “But now you can control exactly where you remove the materials on the wafer.”

At the State University of New York campus, the word “nano” appears often. There’s the NanoTech Complex, the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, and a claim to being the first college in the world dedicated to research, development, education and deployment in the emerging disciplines of nanoscience, nanoengineering and nanobioscience. In units of measurement, "nano" is a prefix meaning one-billionth, and nanotechnology involves the use of matter on the atomic scale for industrial purposes.

Vallée, the SUNY Poly innovation scientist who was recently hired to oversee research involving the Oxford tool, said the idea of experimenting with chemistry to make technology smaller and make the most out of tiny amounts of precious metals is in the best interest of advancing research while improving the efficiency of manufacturing and becoming more environmentally responsible.

“Proof of concept on smaller dimensions,” he said. “Can we identify safer processes with lower global warming?”

Editor's note: A previous version of this story referred to SUNY Poly's NanoTech Complex. It has been updated to explain that the complex is located at SUNY Poly but operated by NY CREATES.
Aaron Gifford has several years of professional writing experience, primarily with daily newspapers and specialty publications in upstate New York. He attended the University at Buffalo and is based in Cazenovia, NY.