With New Grant, RPI Works To Shrink Microchips, Expand Semiconductor Workforce

RPI will lead the $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation

November 8, 2023


Transistors — the tiny on-off switches inside microchips — have gotten smaller and smaller over the years, increasing computing power and enabling smaller devices. During that time, the copper wires that connect these switches have likewise shrunk.

However, smaller, thinner wires create a big problem, said Daniel Gall, professor of materials science and engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

“The job of the wire is to conduct electrons — electricity. Imagine a wire as a crowded hallway that the electrons have to get through. The narrower the hallway, the more the electrons bump into things and scatter. We call that resistance,” Gall explained.

As the wires in chips get smaller and thinner, resistance increases, and efficiency goes down.

“Today, resistance is the biggest barrier to more efficient chips,” Gall said.

Thanks to a new, three-year $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, Gall will lead collaborators at RPI, Notre Dame University, and Cornell University on a hunt for new materials that can be made even smaller than current copper wires while offering far less electrical resistance.

Discovery of such materials may one day lead to smaller, faster, more energy-efficient computer chips, Gall said.

The grant will also support a workforce development initiative that will connect hundreds of students and leaders at historically Black colleges and universities, minority-serving institutions, and community colleges; semiconductor experts at research intensive universities; and microelectronics engineers from chip manufacturing companies.

This component of the project will advance semiconductor curriculum, generate immersive industry-led courses, establish a seminar series and, at RPI, launch an interdisciplinary master’s degree program in semiconductors technology.

“Right now, the semiconductor industry does not reflect the diversity of the U.S. population. To change that, we need to start in the classrooms of institutions that serve those underrepresented in the semiconductor workforce. We are excited to work with researchers and leaders from 21 historically Black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions to co-design interactive teaching approaches that foster an immersive learning environment and student mentorship,” said Shayla Sawyer, professor of electrical, computer, and systems engineering, who will lead the workforce development component of the project. Sawyer directs the Mercer XLab at Rensselaer, which supports innovative learn-by-doing approaches for students.

“No one person or institution alone will be able to effect the changes needed to support a thriving domestic chip industry, which is why RPI is proud to bring together researchers, educators, and students who represent the future of semiconductors in the U.S.,” said Shekhar Garde, dean of Rensselaer’s School of Engineering.

The project is funded by NSF’s Future of Semiconductors Program, a public-private partnership aimed at accelerating new chip technologies and developing the U.S. chip manufacturing workforce. This program is made possible by the 2022 CHIPS and Science act.

Written By Samantha Murray
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