The University of Arkansas celebrated an important milestone with the groundbreaking on a building that Chancellor Charles Robinson suggested might someday rival the U of A’s most iconic structure, Old Main, in significance to the university and the state of Arkansas.

Robinson and other university leaders, including University of Arkansas System President Don Bobbitt and members of the U of A System Board of Trustees, as well as researchers and industry leaders, gathered at the Arkansas Research and Technology Park in South Fayetteville to celebrate construction of the national Multi-User Silicon Carbide Research and Fabrication Facility, or MUSiC

The new semiconductor research and fabrication facility will produce microelectronic chips made with silicon carbide, a powerful semiconductor that outperforms basic silicon in several critical ways. The facility will enable the federal government – via national laboratories – businesses of all sizes, and other universities to prototype with silicon carbide, a capability that does not presently exist elsewhere in the U.S.

Work at the facility will bridge the gap between traditional university research and the needs of private industry and will accelerate technological advancement by providing a single location where chips can go from developmental research to prototyping, testing and fabrication.

“This fills a gap for our nation, allowing companies, national laboratories and universities around the nation to develop the low-volume prototypes that go from their labs to fab, ultimately scaling up to the high-volume manufacturing…” said Alan Mantooth, Distinguished Professor of electrical engineering and principal investigator for the MUSiC facility. “We fill that gap. And there’s no other place like it in the world. This is the only place that will be able to do that with silicon carbide.”

The 18,660 square-foot facility, located next to the National Center for Reliable Electrical Power Transmission at the research and technology park, will address obstacles to U.S. competitiveness in the development of silicon-carbide electronics used in a wide range of electronic devices, circuits and other consumer applications. The building will feature approximately 8,000 square feet of clean rooms for fabrication and testing.

Education and training within the facility will also accelerate workforce development, helping supply the next generation of engineers and technicians in semiconductor manufacturing, which Mantooth and other leaders have said is critical for bringing semiconductor manufacturing back to the U.S., after it was offshored in the late 1990s and early 2000s. 

“This is truly a special day in the life of the University of Arkansas,” said Robinson. “This building, it really doesn’t need to be hyped. It is a very important building, and you just know it, important for our university, important for our state, important for our nation.” 

Robinson invoked another groundbreaking, that of Old Main, the university’s oldest and best known structure, which the university celebrated Aug. 17, 1873, almost exactly 150 years ago. 

“I took that 150th anniversary of the groundbreaking as a good sign that we are moving in a timely way,” Robinson said, “doing important work in establishing this building.”

Friday’s groundbreaking occurred a day after the university and the Arkansas Department of Commerce hosted the CHIPS AMERICA Summit, an event in which research, industry and governmental leaders discussed semiconductor-related opportunities resulting from the CHIPS (Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors) and Science Act passed by Congress in 2022. The event featured Adrienne Elrod, director of external and government affairs for the U.S. Department of Commerce’s CHIPS Program Office, U.S. Rep. Steve Womack and Arkansas Secretary of Commerce Hugh McDonald.

During the summit, Elrod stated that prior to the coronavirus pandemic, 90% of the world’s leading-edge chips were manufactured at one facility in Taiwan. The federal government prioritized the onshoring of this critical technology as a result of manufacturing and production shortages of essential computer chips during the pandemic.

“If America is going to compete and lead the world over the next century, we must invest in our technology and manufacturing,” Elrod said. “We want to make sure, at the very least, that we have two new large-scale clusters of leading- edge fabs created (in the United States).”

As Mantooth mentioned, the University of Arkansas can contribute to this effort on a fundamental level and is uniquely positioned to take advantage of opportunities offered by the CHIPS and Science Act, which is providing approximately $280 billion in funding to stimulate domestic research and manufacturing of semiconductors.

“The university is leaning forward and has now secured funding for projects important to microelectronics research and development,” Womack said during Thursday’s summit. “The university has positioned itself, as I say often, to be the preeminent university research location for microelectronics. … I am grateful for the bright minds at the University of Arkansas with a proven track record of success who will make this happen.”

Original – University of Arkansas