Legislature and U Want to Beef Up Microtech

Educators, researchers, industries and the state have joined forces under the banner of the Utah Microtechnology Consortium.

Still charting a course for itself?the consortium wants to beef up local facilities for small-scale technology.

The consortium is one of the state’s many efforts to foster high-tech development under Gov. Mike Leavitt’s direction.

The effort to pool the talent and resources in the microtechnology arena could be a historic one?and very needed, said Randy Block, who is heading up the consortium’s early-stage feasibility study.

Utah lacks much of the infrastructure to support development in the field, he said.

A push to improve microtechnology facilities began independently at the U. Faculty members have begun to draw up plans to improve and eventually create a new home for the diverse and expanding field on campus.

The U’s facilities suffer from a difficulty that universities know well?out-dated and broken equipment, much of which is about 20 years old.

The U needs a push if it’s going to keep up with microtechnology, according to Steve Blair, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and an advocate of the proposed facility.

Building Up

Supporting improvements in universities’ own facilities is the consortium’s first priority, according to Rod Linton, executive director of the Utah Technology Alliance. Further down the line is a central facility, open to consortium members.

This winter, the consortium plans to request about $250,000 from the state Legislature.

If the request is successful, a portion could go toward upgrading the U’s HEDCO microfabrication lab, said Gerald Stringfellow, dean of the College of Engineering and member of the consortium’s executive committee.

Upgrading HEDCO is also the first part of an expansion plan that leads all the way up to the construction of Ufab, a bigger and better microfabrication facility.

The consortium is considering a similar plan to establish a central facility for use by academic and industrial consortium members. These include the U, Brigham Young University, Utah State University, Intel Corporation, Micron Technology and Fairchild Semiconductor International.

As it stands now, plans for UFab may be a little different.

“UFab would be a research and education facility, but still have industrial components,” Blair said. “UFab represents our activity on campus and that’s what value we add to the consortium.”

Though some overlap might appear possible, it will be a while before plans pan out.

“We’re still getting our ducks in a row,” Miller said of plans for UFab.

The Technology

In the U’s HEDCO microfabrication laboratory, patterns are etched onto slices of semiconductor crystal, other layers of material are added, producing tiny electrical devices.

The microfabrication lab is the machine shop of the present age, said Mark Miller, HEDCO director.

“It was established for microelectronics, but it turns out we can use it for many things,” he said.

By applying the same process, researchers can devise small-scale ways to control fluid or heat flow, guide light in optical circuits, interact with biological molecules or operate micro electromechanical machines.

These devices are measured in microns?a human hair is about 100 microns wide. Some technology ventures down to the level of large molecules?the nanoscale.

Micro- and nano-technology spreads over the traditional boundaries between fields, according to Blair.

“Pretty much every department in the College [of Engineering] should have new positions in this area, that’s what makes us competitive,” he said.

Confining growth in microtechnology to the domain of engineering is a danger. A significant amount of interest comes from the College of Science and School of Medicine, Blair said.

In the Lab

Miller began work on plans to upgrade HEDCO last spring, prior to taking charge of the lab at the start of Fall Semester.

To replace old and broken machinery, Miller has begun soliciting donations of used equipment from industry. But he must be selective. The cost of maintaining certain machines can greatly exceed the lab’s budget.

Even so, the search has been promising so far. Both Micron Technology and Fairchild Semiconductor International have been helpful in an effort Miller compares to a barn raising.

The lab is slated for remodeling next year as well. Miller hopes to add lab and window space.

With Leavitt’s call for state schools to double the number of engineering students in five years and triple it in eight, Miller anticipates growth in student enrollment in classes that use the lab.

What’s more, improving the lab’s quality will only increase student interest, making classes more selective.

Gathering equipment, setting up classes and projects is an ongoing process?”so at any given point, we have a good facility, the best possible facility,” Miller said.

[email protected]