Nanofab partnerships lead to real-world solutions

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July 31, 2003 – Paolo Gargini, director of technology strategy at Intel Corp., has high hopes for nanotechnology — and a $4 billion research budget to make those hopes a reality.

Intel expects to perfect 100-nanometer chip features this year, two years ahead of schedule. At its current pace, that number should drop to 22 nanometers by 2015.

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Still, like many industrial scientists, Gargini knows he cannot succeed alone. That’s why he stays in regular contact with Yoshio Nishi, director of the Stanford Nanofabrication Facility  (SNF) at Stanford University. The two oversee a joint research effort to study the conductive properties of silicon mixed with germanium.

Without Stanford’s help, Gargini says, Intel and many other companies jockeying for position in small tech would be in trouble. “None of these companies could invest the billions you need for nanotechnology,” Gargini said. “Associations of this sort are mutually beneficial.”

Associations are also more common. In today’s economy hobbled by slow growth and corporate penny-pinching, industrial researchers court their academic counterparts to help with basic research. The collaborations allow university researchers to test their ideas in something closer to a real-world environment, getting valuable feedback from their industrial partners.

In the short run, facilities like Stanford’s give companies access to top-notch fabrication resources ranging from chemical vapor deposition to wet-etching to surface machining. Nishi estimates that industry researchers account for 35 percent of the work at his facility.

More than 100 companies are members of the SNF, from giants like Intel down to “small companies with bright new ideas, but they don’t have the infrastructure,” Nishi said.

In the longer run, academics and executives alike hope the partnerships will lead to fabrication and manufacturing methods that are both novel and practical. Such solutions are becoming increasingly imperative for chipmakers, for instance, who have been encouraged by the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors to develop nanoscale manufacturing methods by as early as 2015.

Gargini says he often encounters professors doing useful research, but with material that isn’t suitable for Intel’s purposes. He then nudges them to consider silicon, and the professors usually oblige.

“In most cases, professors just do whatever is easiest for them. … They sometimes just need a push to get going in directions that would help us,” Gargini said.

The Stanford Nanofabrication Facility is part of a consortium to forge stronger industry-university ties. Called the National Nanofabrication Users Network (NNUN), it was launched by the National Science Foundation in 1993 to goose research and to give industry and government access to cutting-edge facilities. Today the NNUN has about 1,700 active users, ranging from corporations to U.S. and foreign government agencies.

In addition to Stanford, the member schools are Penn State University, Howard University, the University of California at Santa Barbara and Cornell University.

The National Science Foundation supported the NNUN for a decade, most recently to the tune of $5.95 million in 2003.  An NSF spokesman says that funding will be phased out this year, as the agency directs its cash to the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN). The NSF requested $11.7 million to launch the NNIN, although Congress has not yet voted on a precise amount.

The NSF defined the new network as a national resource for fabrication and characterization tools as well as other equipment that supports advanced research. It also will include training and education components. NSF spokesman Bill Noxon said more details will follow once funding is finalized.  

Other federal funding opportunities are expected to further strengthen university-industry ties. Northeastern University, the University of New Hampshire and the University of Massachusetts at Lowell have lined up more than 20 industrial partners to win a $15 million grant from the NSF to study nanomanufacturing. The linchpin of their proposal is to use the industrial partners as test subjects for whatever new techniques they develop.
All three schools have ties to various businesses, from giants like General Electric Co. and Hewlett-Packard to smaller players like Triton Systems Inc. and Konarka Technologies. Northeastern, for instance, runs a Center for Microcontamination Control with support from Intel, Seagate, IBM and others.
The three-university plan is one of four finalists the NSF is considering. The agency is expected to select one or two proposals by July.

Relevance to industry and economic growth are now one of the foremost points to make in any research proposal to the government, said Ahmed Busnaina, the Northeastern professor spearheading the project.  “Years ago it used to be all abstract. Now it’s a requirement: What’s the real impact? What’s the benefit?”


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