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Nano-Fabulous: Covered in his cleanroom suit, a CNSE employee holds up a wafer.

Small Chips, Big Investment

 

Propelled to the forefront of nanotechnology, a Capital Region college continues to grow

By Chet Hardin

Photos by Chris Shields

 

Thousands of people drive past it daily. There at the corner of Fuller Road and Washington Avenue Extension, the massive $3.5 billion Albany NanoTech complex looms like a physical prediction of the future landscape. This complex, taken for granted on our drives to Crossgates Mall or Stuyvesant Plaza, houses the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering at the University at Albany, the country’s first comprehensive college of nanoscale sciences.

Started in 2001, the college represents a close relationship between the state, SUNY and industry leaders. Top state officials, notably former Gov. George Pataki and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, have banked hundreds of millions of New York state taxpayers’ dollars—$600 million to date—on this complex and CNSE. Business giants, such as IBM and Sematech among others, have invested huge amounts, as well.

Originally, the college had 72 employees partially housed on the UAlbany campus and partially in the building it would soon take over, the Center for Environmental Sciences and Technology Management (the green-and-white “spaceship”). In the following six years, CNSE grew dramatically, overwhelming the CESTM building, adding two more buildings to its complex, and bringing in 1,500 college and industry employees.

And another $300 million is set to be invested. Still in limbo, as of this writing, a bill, which would designate $300 million for Sematech to move its national headquarters to CNSE, is winding its way through the state government. Having passed the Assembly, the bill awaits a vote in the Senate.

“We also have plans to build a fourth building. Another 250,000 square feet. So when all is said and done we’ll have about 700,000 square feet of space, including roughly close to 100,000 square feet of cleanroom space. And you will not see that on any other college campus in the world,” says Steve Janack, assistant vice president for marketing and communications, standing in the lobby of NanoFab 300 North.

The proposed NanoFab 300 East will cost upwards of $100 million to construct, with a completion date set for next year. It will bring in an estimated 500 more employees.

With the head of CNSE now the highest-paid state worker, making $667,000 a year, many people question the wisdom of the amount of money the state has laid at the feet of the college. But the college counters these concerns, pointing to its early successes. CNSE has twice been honored in the industry’s top trade magazine, Small Times, as one of the leaders in nanoscale academic research. In 2006, the magazine rated the college No. 1 in the country. This year, it ranked No. 1 in the world.

Plus, for every dollar the state has invested, Janack adds, private industry has invested five, pushing the Capital Region to the forefront of nanotechnology research.

“Nanotechnology is not the product. It is not something you make,” Janack says. “It is the know-how.”

In a time when the flight of young New Yorkers out of the state causes much hand-wringing in the Capital Region, some are gambling that this nanotech “know-how” will play a significant role in growing a new economic future. And so far, at least for CNSE, the gamble appears to be paying off.

The long, carpeted hallways of NanoFab 200 (formerly the CESTM building) have the look of an office building abandoned to mad scientists. “This building wasn’t really built for us,” says Michael Fancher, the assistant vice president for Economic Outreach and associate professor of Nanoeconomics. “So we have done a lot of modifications to it. When we came in, the bulk of our operations were still over on campus.”

Scattered throughout the building are rooms, no bigger than utility closets, cluttered with Cat-5 cable and computer equipment. Multimillion-dollar ion- and electron-microscopes stand alone in small office rooms.

“You won’t find microscopes like these at any other university,” Fancher boasts.

Vacuum pumps circulate the air in cleanrooms and fill the hallways with a gentle whir. Fancher points out engineers working behind glass in a hyper-maintained environment.

Tweaking the system: A CNSE grad student is busy with research.

“We use this lab primarily to develop sensors, MEMS [Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems]—mechanical devices on the surface of a chip,” he says. “So we can make biosensors, and actuators, which are triggers.” The airbag sensors in your car are actuators, he says—tiny fingers that, when shocked, strike each other and signal for the bag to be deployed.

In NanoFab 300 North, Fancher pauses in front of another cleanroom. This one is massive. The hallway is lined by floor-to-ceiling windows. Workers in white cleanroom suits slowly mill about state-of-the-art, multimillion dollar machines. This is part of the Sematech program.

Sematech has been in the news a lot lately due to a $300 million state-funding bill. The Austin, Texas-based consortium is made up of leading computer-chip companies—IBM, Intel, and others—who have pooled their money for research and development. The focus of the Sematech research in this cleanroom is lithography, the process of using light to etch images on smooth surfaces that is at the base of computer-chip manufacturing.

Lithography has been practiced in the art world since the turn of the 19th century. In computer-chip manufacturing, lithography is used to pattern a chip’s structure on wafers, round discs of ultra-pure silicon.

The process is simple: Light is projected through a negative with a circuit design patterned onto it. The image is projected onto a wafer. Wherever the light touches, it changes the chemical composition of the silicon, binding it like the weave of a sweater. Then the wafer is exposed to an etching process. Whatever material has bound remains. Everywhere else is eaten away.

The chip’s elements—wells that hold electrons and the wire structures that run throughout—are now embedded in this silicon matrix, and an insulating layer is put down. Then the process is repeated: more metal, a pattern is imprinted again, then etched, and over and over. Below this cleanroom, Fancher says, complex computer systems track the tools and roughly 900 process steps that go into making a computer chip.

Over the tall lithography tools, cranes hang. Saratoga Springs’ Zenter Handling builds these specialized 1- and 5-ton cranes, used to lift the light source into the massive lithography machines, a delicate procedure used for servicing. Building these cranes has forced Zenter Handling to shift from constructing the standard industry cranes, used for moving heavy stuff quickly, to ones that move heavy stuff slowly and with extreme precision.

“So it has opened up an entirely new business for them of exact motion,” Fancher says. “And their customers are Sematech, the college, IBM.”

“There are multiple examples of the college reaching out to local businesses,” Janack adds. “There is a local plumbing-and-heating company, Campito in Latham, that had to learn how to do plumbing and ventilation work specifically for a cleanroom, which is different than for a normal room. But now that they have done it, it has become 20 percent of their business. And they are now marketable to go out and do this work for other places.”

M&W Zander, from Germany, designed and built these high-tech cleanrooms. Five years ago, they had no employees in the region. Now, they have more than 250. Vistec Lithography will be moving its operation from England to Albany. Into this cleanroom space, they will move their research-and-development operation, with manufacturing going on over at the Watervliet Arsenal. They plan to create 130 jobs.

This is the type of growth that CNSE boasts it is bringing to the region.

“If we can turn around a cannon- manufacturing site,” says Fancher, “we can turn any place around.”

‘This university’s approach is to do co-location,” says Fancher, referring to the college’s partnership with industry and state partners. “This represents a new model where industry, university and government form a partnership. You co-locate the university’s faculty and students with industry’s researchers. That implies that the companies come in with their own preexisting intellectual property, but they are missing some element to bring that technology to fruition, to market. So what the college has done is focus on unique facilities, unique infrastructure, that many companies want to integrate their piece of the solution to the overall process.”

The college has 250 research partnerships with corporations like IBM, Sony, Toshiba, AMD, and local companies like the energy companies Plug Power and Day Star, and Rensselaer’s Applied Nanoworks. “We have partnerships with them that is allowing them to advance their technology,” he says. “They are using the tools here to advance their technology, get to market quicker and become profitable.”

“Bringing everybody into close collaboration is essential,” Janack adds. “So what we have done here is create an ecosystem of R&D and manufacturing. So now, rather than just a lab that has a tool that is made just for research, we have the tools that can do the research and also support advanced manufacturing. We are relevant to a broad scope of companies because we can satisfy their long-term, medium-term and short-term horizons.”

Great opportunity: (l-r) Students Bresin and Miller are happy to be here.

It is not just access to the tools, he continues, that has attracted businesses to CNSE, but being in close proximity to others in the complimentary fields also allows access to potential customers.

“When you are the little guy,” he says, “and you are wondering how you break in and get the attention of your customers, having a partner like CNSE can be a real bonus. When you can say that this $3 billion complex is my home, there’s a lot more credibility.”

Another important element of this “co-location” equation are the students. Nearly 125 graduate students attend the college currently, and they are able to work in close quarters with the industry researchers.

Christopher Miller, a native of Iowa, spent last summer interning on-site with IBM.

“The work I did with IBM complements what I am learning at CNSE,” says Miller. “On a daily basis, I am doing my research, and IBM is doing their research. So we don’t cross paths a lot. But having the internship with IBM helped me get up close and personal. And having IBM here on site helped me with that.”

Matthew Bresin, who also interned with IBM in 2006, went on to work with the company part-time during the fall semester. He agrees with Miller: The experience was invaluable, but as much for IBM as for the students.

“If I had to sum up the experience, I would say that IBM is always very interested in extending relationships with the college,” he says. “I get to see how the fab works, and they get to see what we are doing as far as research. It is just beneficial for both.”

“Nanotechnology is such a broad term,” Miller says. “Here we focus a lot on the electronic side of it. There are more chemistry-based sides, where you are building the structures from the small atoms and making clusters.”

Nanotechnology is based simply on scale. “Nanotechnology is a buzzword. We are in the electronics business. We do nanoscale electronics. Somebody doing makeup is doing nanotechnology, but their nanotechnology is nothing like our nanotechnology.”

But all of these separate scientific studies of the nanoscale, for Miller and Bresin, represent the future of science.

“We are in a box on global warming, we are in a box on taking care of our elderly and health care, we are in a box on homeland security,” Fancher says. “What are we going to do? We are going to embed intelligence with telemetry, with sensing and power. And we are going to tackle these problems.”

“Energy is really a key concept that everyone needs to look at. Simply because of world issues—world issues and environmental issues,” Bresin adds. “Semicon drives so much industry, but you also have to realize that with the materials-development that you are getting with that industry, you are also creating more industry, and one of those is renewable energy. Next-generation solar cells, fuel cells—you are basically looking at silicon devices. A lot of that stuff is driven by the stuff going on at this college. So it isn’t just about your cell phone or laptop, it also affects really important world issues.”

“Why nanotechnology is such a big buzzword,” he adds, “as compared to micro-electronics and biotechnology, is that characteristics of materials on a nanoscale are much different than they are on any other scale. As you get smaller and smaller, materials start doing strange stuff. That door”—he points to a typical office door—“on the nanoscale will not behave in the same way it does there. Newton’s Laws don’t apply. We are redefining science.”

chardin@metroland.net


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