A team of researchers led by a handful of University of Arkansas, Fayetteville professors has procured a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy that will establish the state's first Energy Frontier Research Center and potentially create a new industry in Arkansas. The $10.35 million grant will establish the Center for Manipulation of Atomic Ordering for Manufacturing Semiconductors, dedicated to investigating the formation of atomic orders in semiconductor alloys and their effects on various physical properties, according to the university. That can enable reliable, cost-effective and transformative manufacturing of semiconductors, the essential material used in myriad devices from cellphones to computers.

By Ryan Anderson

Old Main on the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville campus is shown in this file photo. (NWA Democrat-Gazette file photo)

"Arkansas has never gotten an award like this, but the Department of Energy funds a research community with a bright future," said Shui-Qing "Fisher" Yu, UA-Fayetteville electrical engineering professor and the group's leader.

As Principal Investigator, the individual responsible for the preparation, conduct and administration of a research grant, Yu's also a little "nervous," as "I immediately had to think about how to manage it," hence the Center, he said. The Center, which isn't a physical building, but, rather, a virtual collaboration space, "brings all of our expertise together," and Yu is even considering using virtual reality technology so all collaborators feel more "together" while working.

Yu leads the UA-Fayetteville team of Distinguished Professor Greg Salamo, assistant professor Jin Hu, associate professor Hugh Churchill, and assistant professor Hiro Nakamura, along with researchers from Arizona State University; George Washington University; Stanford University; the University of California, Berkeley; Dartmouth College; Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff; the University of Delaware; and Sandia National Laboratories, according to the university.

The four-year grant is part of the Department of Energy's $540 million investment in universities and national laboratories focused on clean energy technologies, with a goal of developing low-carbon manufacturing processes that will reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

Yu had been working with several of these collaborators for years on similar projects, but he also "brought in key players for their expertise," he said. The Energy Department "sees us as a single team, and no one person can do it all," but UA-Fayetteville is "a natural leader" for this project due to "our history of studying the material and being a world leader."

"This university environment is friendly to research -- it's like a family business where you feel at home -- [providing] an honest and open working environment," Yu said. "Be aggressive -- nobody will stop you -- that is the culture here."

This grant award is based on the recent discovery by this extensive network of researchers that atoms in the alloy silicon germanium tin, a semiconducting material, demonstrate a short-range order -- the regular and predictable arrangement of atoms over a short distance, usually only one or two atom spacings -- in a periodic lattice, according to the university. This had a major effect on the energy band gap and led to a hypothesis that material properties in semiconductor alloys could be designed and fabricated by manipulating the order of atoms.

Example: Electron-Beam Manipulation of Silicon Dopants in Graphene

"Take advantage of nature; let nature do its job," Yu said. This is "significant research [that can be] quite transformative for manufacturing."

Everything from lasers and transistors -- miniature semiconductors that regulate or control current or voltage flow in addition to amplifying and generating these electrical signals and acting as a switch/gate for them -- to night vision technology and central processing units could be produced not only less expensively, but with improved quality, Yu said. The material for infrared technology, for example, "is very exotic and expensive, but if we can build that using this silicon-based material, it'll be less costly."

Central processing units, or CPUs, can be made "more effective and faster, and the same for transistors," he said. "This material can build the next generation of transistors," as well as "more affordable and reliable cars."

Semiconductors are critical in the manufacturing of consumer electronics, but are especially paramount for automobiles, where they're necessary for everything from entertainment systems to power steering, so the shortage of semiconductors during the past couple of years has forced vehicle manufacturers to cut production and delivery targets, which in turn has driven up the sale price of vehicles, according to a recent analysis from J.P. Morgan.

Though more semiconductors have recently become available, and the situation is predicted to ameliorate over the next couple of years, they "may not be the right type to satisfy all demand," particularly for the auto industry -- especially as more electric vehicles are produced.

While "the science is always number one," this research by Yu and his collaborators also responds to a timely need, Yu said. "This is good technology deeply rooted in fundamental science with economic impact."

The U.S. has fallen behind Asian countries in semiconductor manufacturing, with South Korea the biggest spender, followed by Taiwan and China, and those three nations collectively account for an expected 73% of spending this year, according to CNET, a website focused on covering global technology and consumer electronics news. A June report from the White House called semiconductors "key to the 'must-win' technologies of the future."

While the U.S. has fallen behind other nations in the manufacturing of semiconductors, the knowledge in America is on par -- if not better -- than any other country, Yu said. "We have a bigger foundation than anywhere in the world, but sometimes they can make things cheaper elsewhere."

That's part of what led to the alloy silicon germanium tin innovation, he said. "Don't go to the same track; [rather], go to a different track and re-establish our technological advantage."

In August, President Joe Biden signed into law the CHIPS and Science Act, which -- among other things -- provides American semiconductor makers with $52.7 billion over five years to ramp up processor manufacturing.

Over the next few years, Yu hopes to "establish a whole new industry in Arkansas, [as] our technology will meet the needs of industry [locally and] make Arkansas technologically competitive."

That can help "keep talent in Arkansas, [rather than] going to other states," he said. "We develop technology, and eventually commercialize it, to make an impact on" Arkansans.

Source https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2022/sep/26/ua-led-semiconductor-team-gets-10m-grant/