UChicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering receives $1.9 million grant to develop new semiconductor technology

University of Chicago researchers are leading a multi-institution team that has received a nearly $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to conduct research that will enable next-generation semiconductors.

The Future of Semiconductors (FuSe) program grant, one of only 20 given out nationwide, will bring together researchers from UChicago, Cornell University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison to design, synthesize and investigate self-assembling materials and processes for high-volume, high-resolution patterning in semiconductor manufacturing.

The UChicago Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) team is led by Prof. Juan de Pablo and Prof. Paul Nealey.

Juan de Pablo headshot
Prof. Juan de Pablo

“New semiconductor technology will be essential in advancing innovations in artificial intelligence, climate modeling, and therapeutics,” said de Pablo, who is also Executive Vice President for Science, Innovation, National Laboratories, and Global Initiatives at the University of Chicago. “Our work will lead to new technologies for the fabrication of nanoscale circuits that will improve performance and speed. A distinctive feature of our research will be to combine advanced molecular modeling, synthesis of new molecules, and characterization to rapidly arrive at new and effective processes for nanomanufacturing.”

“Lithography is the enabling technology in semiconductor manufacturing. We have played a leading role in developing self-assembling materials for lithographic processes. Information encoded into the materials helps pattern at the dimensions of individual molecules,” said, Nealey, the Brady W. Dougan Professor of Molecular Engineering and Vice Dean for Education and Outreach at Pritzker Molecular Engineering. “Our work will allow manufacturers to create devices at increasingly smaller length scales.”

Paul Nealey
Prof. Paul Nealey

An essential element of every electronic device, semiconductor microelectronics have powered our computing, sensing, and communications for decades. But as technology has been miniaturized, scientists and engineers are reaching the limits on how dense and powerful integrated circuits can be.

That’s because semiconductor manufacturing relies on photolithography, which uses light to produce patterned films that create electronic circuits on a wafer. The light is used to transfer a design to a light-sensitive material called a photoresist that has been coated on a substrate. The photoresist then reacts to the light, and exposed (or unexposed) material is removed to create the pattern. This process is repeated over many layers.

But just how small these patterns can be is related to the wavelength of light used in this process. To get even smaller patterns, manufacturers have begun to use extreme ultraviolet (EUV) light — essentially a soft X-ray. That enables patterning at even smaller dimensions to create even more powerful and faster semiconductor devices.

“The transition to using EUV has been a seismic shift in the industry,” Nealey said. “It led to a lot of new questions about materials and processes.”

Semiconductor companies and equipment and material suppliers are expending tremendous effort and expense to develop photoresist materials that can work with EUV light and meet all the constraints of high-volume manufacturing. The UChicago research team hopes to contribute to that with block copolymers. Block copolymers that self-assemble could be used in the EUV lithography process to correct any pattern problems created by a photoresist, making it so even poorly performing photoresists could be used.

With the grant, the research team will leverage of materials (polypeptoids) and tools (automated high-volume solid-phase peptide synthesizers) from biology to achieve protein-like functionality in synthetic materials for manufacturing at the nanoscale. The team will use both computational tools and experiments to synthesize polypeptoid containing block copolymers with emergent and optimized properties.

The grant will also fund internships for community college students to help prepare them for jobs in the semiconductor manufacturing industry.

“Workforce development in this area is extremely important,” Nealey said. “With these internships, community college students will get an advanced level of training and exposure to the tools and concepts of semiconductor manufacturing concepts so as to enable career paths and important contributions to the U.S. semiconductor industry.”