Volume 7, Number 1, 1997

On Research

UD receives $2.88M for new computer chip research center

This is the future," Daniel W. van der Weide says, holding a shiny, silver-colored disk as he accepted a $2.88 million grant from the state to develop better techniques for making semiconductor integrated circuits, or computer chips. "What I'm holding is an array of integrated circuits-the engines that drive our information-based economy."

Patterned onto saucer-sized silicon wafers, modern integrated circuits (ICs) feature increasingly small components, and soon even molecular-scale flaws could create big problems for IC manufacturers, said van der Weide, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. To ensure more precise manufacturing techniques and provide a training ground for workers in the semiconductor industry, Delaware Gov. Thomas R. Carper and the Economic Development Office provided the grant to UD and several industry partners, including Rodel Inc., to launch a new Advanced Technology Center, which will be located on the Newark campus and known as the Center for Nanomachined Surfaces.

Van der Weide and other researchers within the Center for Nanomachined Surfaces (CNS) plan to develop the world's highest-precision polished, or "nanomachined," photomask surfaces for patterning computer chips. Using a technique called photolithography, chip makers project ultraviolet light through a photomask-a template or circuit blueprint of chromium on synthetic quartz-to define the features of each chip on a silicon wafer, van der Weide explains. The photomask exposes selected sites on the wafer, in a fashion akin to printing a photographic negative.

Because slight imperfections on the surface of the photomask result in costly chip defects, each template must be polished to an atomically smooth finish. One way to characterize the templates, van der Weide says, is with atomic force microscopy (AFM), which involves scanning the photomask with a miniature tip that measures the topography of the surface. As director of the CNS, van der Weide will work closely with Mary Wirth, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and Mark Barteau, Robert L. Pigford Professor of Chemical Engineering, to investigate the fundamentals of polishing and surface-characterization techniques.

Wirth's research team, for example, has developed a flat molecule that might serve as a substitute for AFM tips, which can be unreliable. "We just let this molecule roll around on the surface," she says. "When it tilts, we know that it has encountered some roughness."

Work at the CNS "ultimately could affect every integrated circuit made," says Stuart L. Cooper, dean of the College of Engineering. "The new Advanced Technology Center at UD will be an integral part of the state's aggressive and ongoing effort to attract the semiconductor industry. We were delighted and honored to win one of these highly competitive awards."

UD also was named a partner in a second Advanced Technology Center, the new Applied Optics Center (AOC), located at Delaware State University. The AOC, supported by a $1.2 million grant, will develop new laser technologies for biomedical, industrial and consumer uses. UD's participation in the AOC will be directed by Robert G. Hunsperger, professor of electrical and computer engineering.

In addition to research and development, Cooper says, the CNS will promote statewide economic development by offering training in semiconductor fabrication techniques.

"The bottomline," Gov. Carper said at the Aug. 12 ceremony, "is jobs." The CNS will help stimulate Delaware's economy through collaborative research with industry, and by preparing students for technical careers, he said. "UD is on its way to becoming a great university," he added, and Advanced Technology Centers such as the CNS are "an important part of our game plan to make sure this economy we enjoy today will go on...forever."

The information-processing industry has become the largest economic segment worldwide, recently surpassing the automotive and oil industries, van der Weide says. Driving this growth are continuous improvements in the speed and complexity of integrated circuits. The worldwide market for photomasks alone could reach $3 billion by the year 2000, according to van der Weide.

Along with UD, partners involved in the CNS include Delaware Technical and Community College, Rodel, DuPont Photomasks, Delaware Diamond Knives, Atlantic Industrial Optics and CFM Technologies.

The CNS web site is http://nanosurf.ece.udel.edu

-Ginger Pinholster