7 October 2021
NSF grants $18m to build national SiC research and fabrication facility at University of Arkansas
Engineering researchers led by Distinguished Professor Alan Mantooth have received $17.87m from the US National Science Foundation (NSF) to build and operate a national silicon carbide (SiC) research and fabrication facility at the University of Arkansas.
“The national impact of having a fabrication facility such as this is enormous,” says Mantooth. “The country that leads the world in advancing silicon carbide semiconductor design and fabrication will also lead the race to market nearly all new game-changing technologies, including those used by the military, as well as general electronic devices that are essential to our economy,” he adds.
The unique and open-access facility will fill a void in US production of integrated circuits made with silicon carbide, which is well suited for higher-temperature environments. Until recently, efforts to use SiC as a fully developed semiconductor have been stunted by the unavailability of high-quality silicon carbide wafers, says the University of Arkansas. Currently, all silicon carbide fabrication facilities in the USA are for internal use only, and US R&D of SiC integrated circuits relies on international fabrication.
The facility will provide domestic opportunities for prototyping, proof-of-principle demonstrations and device design. It will be the only openly accessible fabrication facility of its kind in the USA, meaning that its facilities and services will be available to external researchers.
The NSF funding will pay for infrastructure, equipment, technology installation and enhancements to existing facilities to accommodate new equipment. The funding will also cover three full-time staff members, a post-doctoral researcher for four years, and miscellaneous funds for set up and operation of equipment.
Mantooth and other University of Arkansas electrical engineering researchers have decades of experience working with silicon carbide. The university research group is one of only a few capable of developing ICs made from silicon carbide, it is reckoned. Combining this expertise with cutting-edge equipment and infrastructure will enable the production of integrated circuits for lighter and faster electronic systems, which will also be more energy efficient and heat resistant.
Compared with industry-standard silicon, SiC is transforming the power electronics industry with its superior physical properties — an exceptionally strong physical bond providing high mechanical, chemical and thermal stability. Its wide bandgap and high thermal stability also allow SiC-based devices to function at extreme temperatures.
The facility will provide ICs, sensors and devices for military and industrial applications, such as solar inverters, electronics for cars – both electric and gas-powered – and systems used in heavy transportation and construction equipment such as bulldozers. Electronics developed at the facility will also enable systems used in geothermal and space exploration.
The facility will train the next generation of semiconductor researchers and engineers who can work in both the silicon and silicon carbide semiconductor industries. Students at all degree levels will be given research opportunities and be exposed to a high-need area of science and technology. The research will also engage under-represented students in this new and burgeoning area of electronics.
Co-principal-investigators on this project are Greg Salamo (Distinguished Professor of Physics), Zhong Chen (associate professor of electrical engineering), Shannon Davis (business and operations manager in the Department of Electrical Engineering) and John Ransom (director of silicon carbide technology at SiC foundry X-FAB in Lubbock, Texas).