Start-ups go fabless thanks to Carnegie Mellon’s nano-fab

MARCH 3–PITTSBURGH–Carnegie Mellon University’s Nanofabrication Facility is becoming home-sweet-home for a handful of technology startups using tiny computer chips that can improve the sound in cell phones or gauge damage done to a disk drive when dropped by a user.

“If a tech startup is deciding where to set up shop, an important part of the decision is the availability of processing facilities,” said Charles Buenzli, vice president and chief operating officer of Bridge Semiconductors. The early stage MEMS MicroElectro Mechanical Systems company develops integrated
circuits for a variety of industry sectors.

“We are a fabless (no factory) semiconductor company that uses MEMS technology in our devices, so it is very convenient to have access to equipment and resources at Carnegie Mellon’s state-of-the-art Nanofabrication Facility right here in Pittsburgh,” he said. “It would cost us more than $2 million if we chose to set up a fabrication center for ourselves. We can attribute the rapid progress in our device development to having access to the excellent resources at the facility,” Buenzli said.

Carnegie Mellon’s Nanofabrication Facility includes a $10 million, 4,000-square-foot cleanroom with a full complement of equipment essential to firms that are developing a wide spectrum of novel micro devices. The laboratory also is extensively used by Carnegie Mellon researchers from across the campus with most of the lab activity coming from the Electrical and Computer Engineering’s Data Storage Systems Center and MEMS Laboratory.

“We are delighted to see how the Nanofabrication Facility has grown,” said Robert White, head of Carnegie Mellon’s Data Storage Center. “The facility began as part of the Data Storage Systems Center with support from industrial sponsors who correctly foresaw that data storage systems would become reliant on nanotechnology to achieve the enormous storage densities of today,” White said.

Nanotechnology usually defined as the creation and manipulation of materials on the order of one billionth of a meter, or 1/100,000th the diameter of a hair has the potential to transform everything from fabrics to health care to computers.

“The research projects going on within the laboratory are truly diverse,” said Chris Bowman, director of the Nanofabrication Facility. “Gone are the days of a cleanroom used exclusively for semiconductor devices. Researchers share equipment and ideas. Probably, the most valuable part of the facility for a tech startup is the wealth of processing knowledge that has been accumulated and shared over years by the staff,” said Bowman.

Current lab projects include a 20 nanometer wide bolometer to be used for a more accurate measurement of the mass of the universe, hybrid magnetic and optical storage devices to extend disc drives into the terabit per square inch realm, thin film batteries, an implantable wireless bone strain sensor, microfluid valves and flow regulators for bio fluids, magnetic random access memory chips, artificial lung tissue research, micro fuel cells, inertial sensors and organic chemical sensors for health and safety.

During the past 20 years, the lab has acquired an impressive range of processing equipment. Some of the equipment available for use includes 12 sputtering systems for depositing films of many different materials and alloys, a reactive ion etcher for deep silicon etching and a newly acquired backside wafer aligner which are the workhorses of MEMS-rleated research. The lab also sports a five nanometer focused ion beam etcher and a newly acquired 10 nanometer resolution electron beam lithography system extending the lab’s capabilities into increased nanotechnology research. To minimize process variations, the lab’s cleanroom environment is extremely stable year round, maintaining 68 degrees plus or minus one degree and 35 percent humidity plus or minus 3 percent.

At present, the lab is being used by Bridge Semiconductor, Akustica, IC Mechanics and several researchers from the University of Pittsburgh. A complete overview of the Nanofabrication Facility can be viewed at


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