National nanoelectronics expert praises South Bend

Jeff Welser is the director of the Semiconductor Research Corp.’s Nanoelectronics Research Initiative, an ambitious collaborative effort to invent next-generation components that will replace the standard semiconductors that run our electronics today.

Jeffrey Welser, director of the Nanoelectronics Research Initiative

NRI research is conducted at four university-based research centers in the United States, including the Midwest Institute for Nanoelectronics Discovery (MIND) at the University of Notre Dame. South Bend ON recently caught up with Welser to discuss this research and its implications in South Bend and beyond.

Q: Can you briefly describe for our readers the mission of the Nanoelectronics Research Initiative?

A: We are looking for new devices or components that can replace today’s computer chips that power laptop computers, cell phones and other electronic devices. The technology must take us beyond our current technological limits, especially regarding power use, energy efficiency, capacity and applications.

Q: How is this research progressing?

A: Our greatest accomplishment so far is getting the science community and the engineering community to work together to enthusiastically attack the problem and develop the ideas that have great potential for transforming electronics. We have just finished Phase 1, where we took a look at numerous highly innovative ideas. Now we are starting Phase 1.5, where we will take a much harder look over the next two years at eight to 10 of the most promising concepts. We’re optimistic that some of these concepts will advance to the next level of evaluation. For 2011-2012, MIND will be working on several exciting research topics and assembling a team of circuit designers and application experts to build prototypes of devices that have unique functionality, potentially beyond today’s silicon-based computer chip. If successful, these devices could become the basic building-blocks for a next generation of electronic systems.

Q: How important has MIND’s work been in NRI’s quest to develop the next generation of microprocessors?

A: MIND is conducting very important research. One of the most impressive subjects is the study of quantum tunneling, a unique way of transmitting a charge through or across atomic layers. This could enable lower-power devices that are still fast enough to replace high-performance silicon technology in devices from smart phones to supercomputers. MIND is also internationally known for developing nanomagnet logic, using magnets instead of electricity to store, transmit and compute data. When perfected, this technology could enable the development of more functional chips that are ultra-low power, generate less heat and are more cost-effective to manufacture – and have the ability to maintain their memory even when the power is turned off. Because of this expertise, MIND is also winning research contracts from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Defense and other government agencies.

MIND has also led the effort in benchmarking new architectures. All the principal investigators from the other three NRI centers have come to two workshops held at the University of Notre Dame to benchmark their experimental technologies.

Q: What has been MIND’s impact on South Bend?

A: Whenever we give a presentation, whenever we talk about NRI, we always mention that South Bend is the only city that has demonstrated its commitment to supporting nanoelectronics research and establish critical infrastructure, such as Innovation Park at Notre Dame and Ignition Park. The very strong relationship between the City of South Bend and MIND is one you don’t see in any other city. This was a main reason we decided to locate a center in South Bend. Because of Indiana’s and South Bend’s commitment and vision, we said, “Let’s do it.” And it’s been a great decision.

Q: How will MIND’s research, and that of the other NRI research centers, make the world a better place?

A: We are excited and optimistic about where our research is going. There is great potential for creating new components that will transform the electronics industry, and our technology roadmap is well on the way to achieving that. Some of the ideas and prototypes will fall short of our ultimate goals, yet still be big advances that can be used in other markets beyond consumer electronics, such as in sensors and medical-device technology.

Electronics, particularly semiconductors, are crucial to our country’s economic growth, and they play a critical role in virtually every business’s day-to-day operations.

Yet the standard computer chip has just about reached its technological limits. The United States is still the world leader in semiconductor technology and production, but Korea, Japan, China and Europe are making huge investments in this field and are eager to catch up with us. The research going on at MIND and NRI is the most advanced in the world and essential for the United States to maintain its leadership role in this industry.

Publication Date: 
January 2011
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