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Purdue Partners With Industry for Next-Gen Microelectronics

With a $735,000 grant from the Semiconductor Research Corporation, the university aims to ramp up research and workforce development in microelectronics to tackle supply chain issues and build next-generation technology.

Microelectronics engineer in a laboratory working on computing systems and microprocessors
While the capabilities of electronic microchips used for cellphones, computers, infrastructure and vehicles have advanced in recent years, researchers say the development of new microelectronic systems are approaching the current limits of production and design. Noting technological limitations slowing advancements in the field, Purdue University is expanding its research partnership with the Semiconductor Research Corporation (SRC) to bolster the development of new microelectronic systems.

According to a news release this month, SRC recently awarded $735,000 to Purdue’s Center for Heterogeneous Integration Research in Packaging (CHIRP) to connect university researchers with tech industry partners to develop next-generation microchips, as well as to promote workforce development and the training of more students in advanced microelectronic systems.

Ganesh Subbarayan, a Purdue professor of mechanical engineering and co-leader of the center, said that over the past 50 years, the microelectronics industry has approximately followed Moore’s Law, which predicts that the number of transistors on a microchip will double every two years while the cost of a chip is halved.

“We face the potential limits of Moore’s Law, and we need to innovate,” he said in a public statement. “The number of transistors and size of microchips have increased to the point where they are difficult and expensive to manufacture, as well as being more susceptible to defects. The next key innovation must be in advanced packaging through which microchips, potentially from different companies, are integrated on innovative platforms.”

Professor of materials engineering Carol Handwerker said the current strategy for making microelectronic systems is to design smaller chips known as “chiplets,” which are less vulnerable to manufacturing defects, and combine those to create more cost-effective alternatives to large semiconductor chips.

“We’re moving toward smaller chips with more common designs and combining those and building them up in three dimensions. We’re combining those so we aren’t having to make these ultra-defect-free chips that are quite large,” she told Government Technology. “That means new materials, new processes and completely new designs.”

With the help of additional funding, Handwerker said the university aims to spur a technological revolution in microelectronics through applied research with industry partners, such as ARM, IBM, Intel, MediaTek, NXP, Samsung and Texas Instruments.

Handwerker said the recent funding will support CHIRP's research, co-led by Purdue University and Binghamton University, to develop next-generation technologies for chiplets and other advanced semiconductor devices.

The Department of Defense last year awarded $40 million over five years to a team led by Handwerker to create a multi-university, industry-government packaging research program to enable the development of lead-free solders in defense electronics called the Lead-Free Solder Performance and Reliability Assurance program, according to the university.

“With $40 million funding from the semiconductor industry for these three centers, Purdue and its university and industry partners are developing not only new enabling technologies – materials, devices, interconnect solutions, algorithms, hardware, and measurements, but are also creating an exceptional, innovative workforce for semiconductors and advanced packaging,” she said in an email.

Handwerker noted that while nearly half of all microchips are sold by U.S. companies, only 12 percent are made here in the U.S. The issue has created what federal officials consider to be a supply chain crisis in semiconductor manufacturing, with President Joe Biden and U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo imploring federal lawmakers to pass the CHIPS (Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors for America) Act that seeks to invest $52 billion in the U.S. semiconductor manufacturing and packaging supply chain and workforce.

SRC, Purdue Partnership, National Security, Technology, Next Moves initiative
From left, Todd Younkin, Semiconductor Research Corp. president and CEO; Theresa Mayer, Purdue’s executive vice president for research and partnerships; Carol Handwerker, the Reinhardt Schuhmann Jr. Professor of Materials Engineering; Ravi Mahajan, Intel Fellow; and Ganesh Subbarayan, Purdue professor of mechanical engineering.
(Purdue University photo/John Underwood)
According to Handwerker, the university will continue its work with students starting at the undergraduate level to expose them to careers in microelectronics and advanced packaging technologies, and involve them in research to help solve production challenges.

She said much of the university's research is geared toward addressing commercial production limitations and constraints that threaten to slow advances in the field and create supply chain issues.

“Our students are tied closely into the U.S. semiconductor and packaging manufacturing [industries],” she said, noting that ongoing research familiarizes students with the field and allows them to see “what works and what doesn’t."

Handwerker and Subbarayan are also collaborating on a $20 million Department of Defense project called Scalable Asymmetric Life-Cycle Engagement, or SCALE — described in a news release as a “national consortium for workforce development in radiation-hardened technologies, heterogeneous integration and advanced packaging, system-on-a-chip, supply chain awareness and embedded system security.”

Handwerker noted that the overall aim, aside from research itself, is to rally more students into the field and boost the development of next-generation microelectronics needed for emerging technologies such as autonomous vehicles, among others. She said this workforce-development component will help the U.S. gain a more competitive edge in the global microelectronics market.

“It’s extremely important to combine research with workforce development. That’s really where a lot of the differentiation happens, where you help students understand how to apply the things that you learned,” she added. “It’s really in research, both as undergraduates and graduate students, where you start pulling everything together.”

Editor's note: A previous version of this story misstated how SRC's recent investment will be spent, as well as the roles of Carol Handwerker and Ganesh Subbarayan in the Department of Defense's SCALE project. The story has been updated to more accurately reflect the focus of CHIRP's research and the roles of Handwerker and Subbarayan in that project.
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.