Engineering the Summer: PhD student Christopher Eom at Intel

The first microprocessor ever sold on the commercial market was released in 1971, and since then, the computing world has been on a wary countdown. As Intel co-founder Gordon Moore observed, the power of microprocessors, specifically the number of transistors inside a microprocessor, doubles roughly every two years, a prognostication now called Moore’s Law.

But, Moore’s Law only speculated that the trend would last for ten years. Now, after decades of rapid development, many wonder if we are nearing the plateau of microchip technology.

To prevent that technological stall, companies are investigating new manufacturing techniques, including directed self-assembly, or DSA. This technology relies on specially engineered nanomaterials that, when heated, can assemble themselves into a desired structure, such as the complex networks used in microchips.

Christopher Eom, a fourth-year PhD student at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME), studies directed self-assembly, and this summer he’s bringing his expertise to an internship with Intel.

What first sparked your interest in materials science?

I come from a chemistry background, and the work I’ve always found most fulfilling are projects where chemistry can be concretely tied to a given application or larger purpose. This takes form, for instance, in the design of emerging materials for next-generation electronic devices. The most engaging part of my work has been playing with the design of materials on a molecular level via chemistry and then seeing how that affects the material’s properties down the line.

What are you working on at PME?

My work involves the directed self-assembly of block copolymers (BCPs). In a nutshell, DSA has been a strategy, in large part pioneered by PME Prof. Paul Nealey, to make smaller and smaller features in microprocessor chip manufacturing.

DSA has already been successful in meeting a number of stringent manufacturing criteria of the semiconductor industry, and incorporating DSA into the industrial pipeline is an active process at companies such as Intel.

My work is focused on an early step in the process: the BCPs themselves. I’m trying to figure out whether BCPs can be chemically designed to satisfy a broad range of covarying properties. To do that, I’m using a high-throughput screening approach to make a large library of BCPs which would ultimately allow engineers to pick and choose the best BCPs for a given application.

Talk to me about your internship. How has the experience been?

It's been a great experience! The people here have made me feel welcome and the work culture is very healthy.

My work at Intel primarily focuses on the development of state-of-the-art fabrication tools and methods for processing novel BCPs for DSA, drawing strongly from science developed in academic labs such as the Nealey Group.

It’s a very exciting juncture to be at. It’s made me really value the opportunities I’ve had at PME, and how my research can help drive new technologies at a company like Intel.

The barriers between academia and industry are blurred within Components Research, as the work here is inextricably linked to both. Outside of the internship, Portland is a fun city and the surrounding nature is absolutely breathtaking, so I spend my weekends taking it in.

How do you see your field growing in the coming years?

The situation surrounding microprocessor chip manufacturing has been evolving quickly and unpredictably, but it's undeniable that the demand for high-performance chips won't be slowing down any time soon. There are so many everyday technologies that rely heavily on them.

Considering all the research being done in the field, whether it be in academic labs or in industrial manufacturing such as at Intel, I think the need for innovative science and research on how to improve the performance of these chips will continue to be crucial in the next 10 to 20 years. I think DSA will be a key part of that.

What role do you hope to play in that vision of the future?

I want to be involved in both the technological mission of a product as well as the fundamental science behind it. From my experience, I have found that a good grasp of the fundamental science has helped me think more deeply about effective product development. As such, I would like my role in the future to straddle both those efforts, and I'm working to make sure my experiences now will make me better equipped to do exactly that.

How has the environment at PME influenced your work?

The people I have been surrounded by at PME, as well as the wider culture, have made a huge impact on my graduate training. I’ve been fortunate to work with a great group of peers who’ve given me truly valuable feedback and advice on my work.

My advisor, Prof. Nealey, has similarly given great insight into my research, while simultaneously keeping my best interests and success as a scientist in mind, including by advocating for this internship.

Finally, the diversity of what people pursue scientifically at PME, combined with the ease of cross-collaboration, gives me solace that I will come out of this program with research that is unique, and training that will equip me to pursue scientific questions and demands.

PME is at the forefront of engineering and science related to materials systems, addressing challenges and technological issues that have a major impact on humanity and quality of life.

Click here for more information on the Molecular Engineering PhD and PME’s other world-class programs.