Where science meets the speed of a computer chip

One of the most important elements of convergence are the external partners that allow students into their research operations. Faculty also play an important role in these collaborations, sometimes taking advantage of previous employment in the corporate sector. As the former senior scientist and manager in the R&D and Quality groups for Cabot Microelectronics Corporation, Associate Professor of Chemistry Edward Remsen was able to involve his students in one of the company’s standing research projects. 

In this study, undergraduate and graduate students worked with Cabot’s scientists to discover chemistries capable of producing atomic flatness on a silicon wafer, which allows computer chip manufacturers to create products that are faster and with more memory but are smaller in size. For example, compare the size of a cell phones from 20 years ago to the sleek, thin models found today. 

To create an atomically flat surface, deposited layers of integrated circuits on a silicon wafer are polished in a process called chemical mechanical planarization (CMP), which uses slurries made of abrasive particles mixed in water with added chemicals. This process is used by manufacturing giants like Intel or Samsung — anyone in the microchip-making business — to create microchips that can accommodate more layers.

“The feature size on the current generation of microchips is about 10 nanometers, which is much, much smaller than the width of a human hair,” said Remsen, adding that companies like Cabot Microelectronics produce CMP slurries, while manufacturers like industry giant Intel buy them. Remsen and his team work with both companies.

The abrasive particles used in these slurries will interact, or form complexes, with the added chemicals in the CMP slurry. The way these molecules interact is becoming increasing important, said Remsen, as the feature size on microchips being polished decreases. 

Given the exponential growth of this industry, microchip manufacturers don’t have time to do all the necessary research regarding these interactions. Instead, they contract teams of university students to work with their scientists to look at the basic scientific aspects, which leads to improved processes. Book knowledge turns into practical knowledge, making the convergence-effort beneficial for both parties. 

“Working on a project that bridged academic research science and industrial science was incredible,” said graduate chemistry student Elijah Sower. “I enjoyed being able to look at a subject and see it from multiple points of views, both from the academic side ‘why does this work?’ and the industrial side ‘how do we make this work better.’ It takes both points of view to develop a robust and profitable process.”

“Students get to see this business area from the supplier side and the customer side,” added Remsen. “This gives them an introduction into how the science and technology in industry work, particularly in a fast-moving industry like microelectronics.”

— S.L. Guthrie