Chips or integrated circuits, a.k.a. the “backbone” of modern microelectronics — the things that make everything from your cellphone to medical devices, to air traffic control and national security systems work — are made of transistors. Transistors, in turn, are made of semiconductors, special materials like the element silicon that can control the flow of electricity.
In response to concerns that U.S. semiconductor production and research was falling behind other countries, President Joe Biden signed the Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors Act, better known as the CHIPS and Science Act, in August 2022. The $280 billion program provides funding for a range of initiatives including semiconductors, but also biotechnology, natural disaster mitigation, advanced energy and more.
Millions of dollars have already come to Boise State through the legislation and “are supporting projects ranging from semiconductors to food and nutrition security to workshops that will translate basic science research into solutions that benefit society,” said Nancy Glenn, vice president for research and economic development. More money is available and the university is “bolstering our capacity to support researchers to be competitive as they vie for these funds.”
Beyond support through the CHIPS and Science Act, Boise State is committed to semiconductor research and to building a skilled workforce through new global partnerships and educational programs. These will open up the world of semiconductors for Idaho students before they step even onto a college campus.
Living in a material world
Several projects at Boise State align with CHIPS and Science Act goals. They include developing chips that help computers act more like the human brain, a field known as neuromorphic engineering.
“The brain works quite differently,” said Kurtis Cantley, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. “It is extremely efficient and uses just 10 watts of power. We don’t fully understand it. That’s been part of the challenge.”
Boise State is partnering with the Idaho National Laboratory, the nation’s leading center for nuclear energy research and development, to design neuromorphic technology that can monitor power grids and detect subtle changes that could indicate a physical or cyber attack.
Boise State researchers are tackling other challenges. Chips, traditionally based on the element silicon, generate immense amounts of heat.
“As transistors have gotten so small, the properties of silicon aren’t compatible with energy demands,” said David Estrada, an associate professor of materials science and engineering and the associate director for the Center of Advanced Energy Studies.
Estrada’s group is exploring elements like selenium that might handle heat better than silicon.
“Everything we have these days runs on microelectronics and integrated circuits,” Estrada said. “If we are not able to have a secure and stable pipeline of these chips, it’s a huge national security issue. Boise State is poised and ready to deliver as much as we can.”
Semiconductors: Boise State on the global stage
When it comes to semiconductors, the university benefits from a longstanding relationship with Micron Technology, a world leader in semiconductor research.
In May 2023, Boise State joined a select group of universities in the U.S. and Japan as part of an initiative known as UPWARDS, formalized with Boise State President Marlene Tromp’s participation at the Group of Seven Summit, or G7, in Hiroshima, Japan. Micron will lead this network that will build partnerships focused on developing a strong semiconductor workforce.
“This incredible initiative positions Idaho as a leader in the world’s semiconductor industry and represents one of this university’s single greatest achievements during my tenure,” Tromp said. “Our faculty’s leading- edge research and our rich and successful partnership with Micron laid the foundation for this monumental collaboration. It will create extraordinary opportunities for our students and our state.”
In the coming years, Micron, Tokyo Electron, the National Science Foundation, Boise State and other university partners will invest tens of millions of dollars in the effort. Grants will foster collaboration in research and semiconductor education between universities, including faculty and student exchange programs. Boise State is off to a good start. Kurtis Cantley and Lan Li, an associate professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, received an UPWARDS grant funded by the National Science Foundation to continue their research.
Play CHIPS Act
Video contains closed captions and a transcript is provided on this page.
Advances closer to home
The Idaho State Board of Education recently approved the creation of the new Institute for Microelectronics Education and Research at Boise State. It is a university-wide effort to advance research and prepare students for microelectronics careers. The institute aims to increase the number of undergraduate and graduate students with industry- relevant, interdisciplinary skills.
“Fields like electrical engineering have not kept pace with the demands from industry and U.S. national security,” said Jim Browning, associate dean in the College of Engineering and a professor of electrical engineering. “If we want to strengthen and sustain those industries, we have to be able to provide those engineers.”
Boise State welcomed Dan Lamborn as the institute’s inaugural executive director in October 2023. Lamborn comes to the university from Intel, where he worked in global supply chain and engineering management.
A commitment to young learners
Through Semiconductor for All, a program beginning in 2024, Boise State will spark students’ interest in the semiconductor industry.
The program, created by Sin Ming Loo, a professor in the College of Engineering and director of the Cyber Operations and Resilience program, and Peter Risse, the associate dean of Extended Studies, will expose high school students to state-of-the-art facilities with hands-on learning.
“We want to engage students, to show them how semiconductors are part of modern life, to teach them about STEM topics and how those apply to semiconductors,” Loo said. The program will encourage students to think about STEM careers.
“How do you become a chip designer? How do you learn to write the software that runs those chips? Those are different pathways, and our program will show students how professionals find their way to those kinds of fields.”
The courses will be available to students throughout the state through the Idaho Digital Learning Alliance.
“This is a giant outreach program, especially for students in rural communities who don’t have other resources for this kind of learning,” Loo said.
An Idaho Workforce Development Council grant is providing initial support. The university will expand programming to reach younger students in the future.
[Kurtis Cantley, Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering]: One of the top exports of Idaho is semiconductors. And so, you know, obviously, the local and regional economy is incredibly dependent on microelectronics and semiconductors. Our work here at Boise State, not just mine, but many of the faculty who are in this area is incredibly impactful. I think locally and regionally, we have students not just at the bachelor’s level, but also the Ph.D. level who go to work for all these different companies in the region. And obviously with new announcements of new facilities and new fabs being built, that’s going to be – have a huge impact in the future.
So the CHIPS Act is legislation that was passed last year by the federal government to incentivize semiconductors and microelectronics manufacturing in the United States. There was also part of that, the Chips and Science Act, and so there’s a large amount of money that was also dedicated just to general science and engineering research and development funds. But the CHIPS Act specifically was something over $50 billion, I think, that is going toward many different aspects of microelectronics manufacturing in the United States. This legislation matters a lot to Boise State and a lot of other universities because a large part of it actually is workforce development and education focused.
In other words, you know, if you’re going to build a manufacturing fab that’s producing semiconductors and chips, you need to have the workforce that’s competent to do that. Especially if it’s, you know, very advanced technology, much of which has been produced recently more in Taiwan and China than in the United States. So bringing that advanced technology manufacturing back to the United States and having the workforce to support that is is especially important. Here at Boise State, you know, we have clean room here, the Idaho Micro Fabrication Lab, and lots of other research programs that are focused on semiconductors and microelectronics. So we’re kind of at the ready to support different companies with their workforce development efforts.
My research group focuses on what we call neuromorphic computing, which is basically building electronic circuits that learn and process information like the brain. There are a lot of different groups here doing research in new types of semiconductor materials, new types of devices, and also the integrated circuits to build different types of chips. And the CHIPS Act is really beneficial for all of us, you know, not just from the workforce development standpoint, but also from providing research funding standpoint. Workforce development is critical for all the companies who are doing semiconductor manufacturing, but that workforce includes Ph.D. level folks who are developing the next generation of electronics and electronic circuits. What drives and inspires me is just working with students. I think that’s the reason most of us become faculty.
Obviously we’re interested in doing our research and trying to push the envelope, so to speak, right, in terms of what’s possible with technology. But really the day to day is working with students, teaching students and getting them excited about the same kinds of things that you’re excited about, and that is just new discoveries, especially as they relate to semiconductors and microelectronics.