Putting the SE Back in Silicon Electronics
Researchers gathered at Duke to answer the CHIPS and Science Act’s call to reinvigorate the nation’s silicon-related research and manufacturing abilities
More than 40 years ago, the state legislature of North Carolina created the Microelectronics Center of North Carolina (MCNC) to be a catalyst for technology-based economic development throughout the state. And it worked. For two decades, the area was a leader of computer innovation, home to behemoths in the industry such as IBM and Lenovo.
While many of the tech giants eventually moved much of their infrastructure out of the state and the region’s strengths in the semiconductor industry declined in the 2000s, the foundations remain intact. It doesn’t take much digging to discover faculty and researchers across the southeastern United States who tie back to the early days of the MCNC—and many of those threads run through Duke University.
Now, with the opportunities provided by the passage of the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022, those ties are being reinforced and combined with emerging technologies such as neuromorphic and quantum computing to revitalize the computer technology innovation and manufacturing infrastructure across the region. On February 10, leaders in a wide variety of these key computing technologies met on the campus of Duke University in a symposium organized by the Pratt School of Engineering and the Duke Office for External Partnerships to explore ways in which their individual expertise can be combined to meet the challenges laid out in the CHIPS and Science Act.
“We must be prepared to take advantage of this opportunity. Not just as individual researchers and institutions, but as a multidisciplinary and multi-stakeholder group that can spur growth in the semiconductor industry for the entire southeastern region and the United States as a whole.”
jerome p. lynch | vinik dean of Engineering
“Last year, the U.S. Congress passed the CHIPS and Science Act, a monumental piece of legislative action that substantially invests in our semiconductor and science ecosystems in the United States,” said Jerome P. Lynch, Vinik Dean of Engineering at Duke in opening remarks. “We must be prepared to take advantage of this opportunity. Not just as individual researchers and institutions, but as a multidisciplinary and multi-stakeholder group that can spur growth in the semiconductor industry for the entire southeastern region and the United States as a whole.”
With aspirations of grandeur, such an effort would require many dedicated experts working in academia, industry, research, non-profits and government—and that’s exactly who showed up to answer the call to action. Two primary webs were woven throughout the day, one focused on AI hardware and the other on quantum computing. And cutting across both were additional threads focused on workforce development, in which universities continue to play an enormous role.
Speakers detailing their research initiatives included:
- Paul Franzon of North Carolina State University, who talked about his work on chiplets, a modular approach to building processors being pursued commercially by both AMD and Intel
- Alicia Klinefelter of NVIDIA, who talked about the company’s existing presence in North Carolina and leading work in areas such as free and open architectures that promote a standard way to design deep learning inference accelerators and tile-based accelerator architectures with distributed memory
- Swarup Bhunia of the University of Florida, who talked about maintaining security on various types of emerging hardware
- Garrett Rose of the University of Tennessee, who talked about neuromorphic computing, which mimics the way neural pathways are strengthened or weaned based on inputs over time as a way to learn to process data
- Sherine Obare, dean of the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, who led a panel discussion on workforce development
- Chris Monroe and Jungsang Kim of Duke University, who reviewed the unique research and teaching abilities being developed at the Duke Quantum Center
- Samuel Graham, Jr., dean of the University of Maryland’s A. James Clark School of Engineering, who, in tandem with Duke’s Christopher Monroe, has long been a voice on Capitol Hill pushing the national conversation around the importance of quantum computing
Also on full display was Duke Engineering’s widespread expertise and facilities in many areas key to the future of the semiconductor industry. Despite the school’s relatively small size, it features many of the research and development capabilities and infrastructure usually reserved for much larger institutions. For example, the Duke Quantum Center in downtown Durham is a unique facility focused not only on achieving quantum supremacy on an industrial scale, but on engaging users and teaching students how to carry today’s visions on into the decades to come.
“Duke University is at the forefront of critical areas like quantum computing, AI hardware and secure edge computing. With constant innovation in semiconductor manufacturing, we’ll be able to take these technologies to the next level. We’re really excited to be part of this wave of innovation.”
hai “helen” li | chair, duke electrical & computer engineering
Duke’s semiconductor-related portfolio covers full-stack capabilities, from the discovery and validation of new materials, to testing the potential uses of new materials in semiconductor devices, to mapping how new devices might fit together into new architectural frameworks while still being able to interface with existing technology.
A big piece of those capabilities comes from the Shared Materials Instrumentation Facility (SMIF)—a shared resource available to researchers from all schools and departments within the university, as well as to users from other universities, government laboratories and industry. Since its establishment in 2002, SMIF has provided access to advanced materials characterization and fabrication capabilities, promoting interdisciplinary collaboration. SMIF’s full-time staff and engineers ensure that all fabrication and characterization equipment are well maintained, resulting in excellent up-time. It is a core facility in the RTP region for semiconductor innovation, encompassing manufacturing, devices and processes.
For example, Duke works on 1D and 2D nanomaterials for nanoscale transistors, neuromorphic devices and printed electronics. This includes work on more environmentally sustainable manufacturing approaches using these nanomaterials.
Duke also has an entire cohort focused on discovering new ways of networking and integrating disparate processing power to achieve incredibly fast results through the concept of edge computing through the NSF-funded AI Institute for Edge Computing Leveraging Next Generation Networks, or “Athena.”
“It’s not just about doing the right thing. There’s simply no way we can fill the jobs these manufacturing efforts will require if we don’t broaden participation.”
Tracy Doaks | President, MCNC
“Semiconductors are the backbone of every disruptive technology we can think of,” said Hai “Helen” Li, Clare Boothe Luce Professor of Electrical & Computer Engineering and chair of the same department. “Duke is at the forefront of critical areas like quantum computing, AI hardware and secure edge computing. With constant innovation in semiconductor manufacturing, we’ll be able to take these technologies to the next level. We’re really excited to be part of this wave of innovation.”
Several of Duke’s faculty also spoke about the Research Triangle Nanotechnology Network, a collective of researchers focused on transformative nanotechnology research, discovery, education, commercialization and workforce development. Such organizations are examples of the existing regional grassroots connections that are ready to be leveraged into a strong coalition for implementing aspects of the CHIPS and Science Act.
The research remarks were followed by a panel discussion around workforce development spearheaded by representatives from the National Science Foundation, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, Duke University, and MCNC. The panelists importantly noted that scaling up the region’s and nation’s manufacturing abilities will take much more than research—it will take a concerted effort to engage with communities that do not typically pursue tech manufacturing jobs for cultural and historical reasons.
“While we’re all hoping to earn trust and future funding, at the end of the day, we’re also here to serve society and make the world a better and safer place based on the next generation of computing technologies that will emanate from CHIPS-funded work.”
JEROME P. LYNCH | VINIK DEAN OF Engineering
“It’s not just about doing the right thing. There’s simply no way we can fill the jobs these manufacturing efforts will require if we don’t broaden participation,” said Tracy Doaks, President of MCNC. “Some parents don’t want their kids to go to college because they’re afraid they won’t come back. The household barriers to broadband, healthcare, and jobs are all connected. A more holistic view that includes developing healthy, supportive households to reach talent in the more rural areas. Because we can create all the cutting-edge research and partnerships with industry that we want, but if we don’t have a trained workforce to translate that work and push it out into the world, then the whole effort won’t be successful.”
These discussions and budding collaborations were further strengthened by the presence and participation of important stakeholders in the national CHIPS and Science Act effort. Representatives from the National Science Foundation and the North Carolina Defense Technology Alliance were on hand. Lunch featured a keynote address by Tim Greeff, the president and CEO of NSXTL, the organization tasked with the monumental challenge of implementing much of the $280 billion program, who recognized that Duke and the Southeast region are well-positioned in terms of research, innovation, industry presence and workforce.
“This country needs its best and brightest to come together to bring it back to the forefront of cutting-edge research, computational innovation and manufacturing,” Lynch said at the end of his opening remarks. “So while we’re all hoping to earn trust and future funding, at the end of the day, we’re also here to serve society and make the world a better and safer place based on the next generation of computing technologies that will emanate from CHIPS-funded work.”