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Worcester Polytechnic Institute to Build Photon Microscope

A $1 million grant from the Innovation Institute at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative will go toward a custom-built photon microscope that will analyze microchips and detect defects or unwanted activity.

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WORCESTER - WPI President Laurie Leshin thanks faculty and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito at Higgins House on Tuesday, December 14, 2021.
Christine Peterson/Telegram & Gazette
(TNS) — Worcester Polytechnic Institute received a $1 million grant from the Innovation Institute at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative which will be used toward a custom-built photon microscope for analyzing semiconductor chips.

"So much of what we're dealing with right now, with shortages of supply chain issues, have to do with issues with semiconductors and chips," said WPI President Laurie Leshin.

She spoke of how devices are interconnected and how this interconnection not only poses a security threat with software but hardware as well.

"That's what this investment is going to enable us to be on the cutting edge of understanding how hardware can take us down a bad path and how to avoid that," Leshin said. "It's about more than cutting edge discovery. It's also about making sure that we can translate those discoveries to the marketplace to the world and at WPI we're really committed to training our students."

Helping address supply chain issues, cybersecurity

The grant, which covers nearly half of the $2 million project led by WPI to create a new center dedicated to the testing and security of semiconductors, will enable the university to address two major issues, said Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito,

"One is issue around supply chain ... The second is involving cybersecurity," she said.

She said that many of our electronics are compromised in terms of the global supply chain and that, "We need to do more here in this country and here in the commonwealth leading in this area so that we can become less dependent and become more independent in this area."

Polito also said taking on a bigger role in the supply chain means making sure that the supply chain is more secure in terms of cybersecurity.

The equipment will take about six months to get to the campus, Leshin said.

"They have to build it and then get it to us. It's custom," said Leshin. "Only one other university in the country has anything even like it."

The microscope will be part of WPI's new facility, which will open in January.

"Investment in facilities is essential, as you look at not only cutting edge research but training the workforce with the skills they need for what's next," Leshin said.

Analyzing chips

The microscope will be used to analyze chips and detect defects or unwanted activity by examining the light emitted by the chip when it is functioning, explained Bogdan M. Vernescu, vice provost of research at WPI.

"Now we're importing a lot of chips from all over the world and we want to make sure that the chips that they import are secured, and they don't do other stuff," Vernescu said. "So you can actually see what's going on with it, which is a very high technique of measuring photons that you cannot perceive with your eyes."

The grant also presents an opportunity for workforce development for the students.

"They will pull in students from QCC (Quinsigamond Community College) and their own students and it becomes really attractive for industry because they see a talent pipeline start to emerge," said Carolyn A. Kirk, executive director at MassTech.

She said that this will lead to the industry supporting the lab as they'll have access to "upcoming talent."

Partnership with MassTech

MassTech, which is a public agency which supports technological initiatives throughout the state, has partnered with WPI in the past on projects such as developing low-tech, low-cost ventilators.

"As we were coming out of lockdown last year, Gov. Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito directed all of us who run grant programs to pivot our approach and find projects that could bring more immediate economic impact, job creation, supply chain, workforce development," said Kirk.

After conducting a series of outreach workshops involving research institutions, research centers and labs throughout the commonwealth, information sessions were held on accessing the fund and topics such as cybersecurity and robotics, she said.

Almost 150 participants from 26 organizations came forward and helped spur the generation of ideas they were looking for, Kirk said.

"So this grant round was really, really competitive and needless to say, the project that stood out is the one that the lieutenant governor just announced today," said Kirk. "It really stood out because it's focused on evaluation and testing at that crossroads of manufacturing and cybersecurity."

The $1 million from MassTech is part of the Collaborative Research and Development Matching Grant program, which is, "a one-to-one match," she said. "That's through the legislation and how the program is set up, so if we put in a million, WPI has to come up with a million either through in-kind on their side or through industry partnerships."

Polito said she is proud to be partnering with WPI and of the work being done at the university.

"And pleased to make another investment of a million dollars into an important program, that they will stand up to address supply chain issues relative to Intel chips, as well as security issues associated with Intel chips," said Polito. "This is significant because systems like transportation systems and health care systems could be compromised if attackers invade a chip space and can be very disruptive to major systems that we rely on."

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