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UMN research makes way for future of semiconductors

After more than a decade of work, University of Minnesota researchers released a study utilizing spintronic devices to make semiconductor chips more efficient.
Image by Getty Images/iStockphoto
The chips being researched are found in electronic devices, including smartphones, computers and medical equipment. Photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota.

University of Minnesota researchers are advancing the manufacturing process for semiconductor chips after releasing research in late February enabling technology companies to make more efficient electronic devices.

Through partnering with U.S. government institutions and technology corporations, researchers in the University’s College of Science and Engineering (CSE) developed a process for creating spintronic devices. This research will be used in the production of chips, which are found in electronic devices, including smartphones, computers and medical equipment.

Spintronic devices differ from the transistor-based chips that are currently used in electronics based on their ability to use the spin of electrons, as opposed to their electric charge, to hold data and information in chips.

Jian-Ping Wang, a CSE professor and senior author of the research paper, has spent more than a decade working on this project.

“Materials research, it’s very hard,” Wang said. “Unlike a lot of other research, it needed many, many years of the accumulation of knowledge to build up the lab, the process and patenting.”

The research, which the University officially announced on March 20, consisted of using an 8-inch wafer-capable multi-chamber ultrahigh vacuum sputtering system to grow iron palladium on silicon wafers. According to the research paper, this process “makes the vision of scalable spintronics more practical.”

Going into the process, researchers wanted to build on past technological innovations, including the invention of the smartphone, and make the manufacturing process more efficient. One goal was to find ways to reduce the energy consumption of electronics, and Wang said it “comes down to the device level.”

Over the last 10 years, technology companies have been searching for ways to make semiconductor chips smaller and more efficient. The project’s researchers figured out how to use iron palladium in the manufacturing process to decrease chip size and increase data storage.

The University’s research received support from technology companies including Intel, the University of Minnesota Technology Commercialization and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

“We developed and tested an exhaustive series of processing alternatives that finally enabled us to realize a working prototype that was featured in our joint publication with the University of Minnesota,” Daniel Gopman, a staff scientist at NIST, said in an email to the Minnesota Daily.

The NIST currently supports a national initiative to increase semiconductor manufacturing and partners with both academic institutions and government agencies, including the Defense Applied Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Wang noted the release of the research aligns “well” with the goals of President Joe Biden’s 2022 CHIPS and Science Act. The legislation aims to strengthen the country’s technology manufacturing and supply chains as well as support more American semiconductor research.

“In Minnesota, we are leading on spintronics and finally, we really can help the industry,” Wang said. “It’s a breakthrough for spintronics and electronics now and it is possible for the industry to use it, not only University.”

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