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Research and Innovation

CHIPS Funding Fuels Two New Initiatives Backed by NC State

Iridescent Silicon Microchip

At NC State University, we’re working to bring U.S. manufacturing back bigger than ever before. In turn, we want to help create high-paying job opportunities for everyday Americans while simultaneously strengthening national security and promoting environmental sustainability. 

But it’s no longer cars or tanks or steel ships that we need to build the most. It’s advanced materials like semiconductor chips and next-generation textiles, both of which have huge implications on the military and civilian sectors alike. 

Speaking of cars, if you tried to buy a new one — or a computer or any other smart device or appliance — a few years ago, you likely recall that lacking a secure supply of semiconductor chips was one of many longstanding problems the COVID-19 pandemic brought to the fore. 

We largely rely on two manufacturers overseas to make the one component needed to run nearly every modern gadget on Earth. They’ve powered computers since the ‘60s, and today, chips have become the backbone of not only the device you’re using to read these words but many other essential technologies we often take for granted. 

And that’s not changing for the foreseeable future. Demand will only continue to go up as each generation of new technology reaches consumers. 

So with bipartisan support, Congress passed the “Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors (CHIPS) and Science Act,” which greenlighted historic investments in domestic manufacturing.

Two scientists hold chip technology and smile at each other.
John Muth (right), Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the primary investigator on the award, works in the lab with Veena Misra, Director of the ASSIST Center.

“The technologies hold the potential to enable future electric vehicles, power grid technologies, 5G/6G, quantum technologies and artificial intelligence applications,” said Fred Kish, the MC Dean Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at NC State.

Kish is the co-director of a brand-new regional innovation hub for wide bandgap semiconductors, which offer higher voltage and temperature capacity than traditional silicon chips.

The regional hub, “Commercial Leap Ahead for Wide Bandgap Semiconductors” — or CLAWS, for short — is one of two initiatives funded through the CHIPS and Science Act that NC State will play a key role in.

“NC State is honored to lead a Microelectronics Commons regional innovation hub to use our breadth and depth of expertise to create better wide bandgap semiconductors that are so important for our nation’s defense,” said Chancellor Randy Woodson. “We’re thankful for the work of those who developed and passed the ‘CHIPS and Science Act’ that supports these regional hubs, and for the regional partners who will collaborate on future research and discovery in this critical high-tech sector.”

Semiconductor materials like silicon carbide and gallium nitride can make electronic devices more powerful and energy-efficient and make systems smaller, lighter and more durable. Wide bandgap semiconductors have many national security applications, in areas such as “weapons systems, warfighter outfitting, position/navigation/timing, biotechnical and medical, materials processing, displays, and a host of additional defense needs,” Kish said.

CLAWS is one of eight Microelectronics Commons regional innovation hubs across the U.S.  that have been established with $238 million of CHIPS funding. The Department of Defense awarded $39.4 million to NC State University to work with hub partner N.C. A&T State University and community colleges to build technical expertise in semiconductors. CLAWS also includes six industry partners: MACOM, Coherent Corp., General Electric, Bluglass, Adroit Materials and Kyma Technologies, Inc.

CLAWS builds on the successes of PowerAmerica — a Manufacturing USA Institute managed by NC State and headquartered on Centennial Campus — which was founded in 2014 by the Department of Energy to advance the domestic manufacturing of wide bandgap semiconductor materials for power electronics.

While CLAWS will address a wider range of applications than PowerAmerica — focusing on both defense and dual-use civilian applications — CLAWS will work closely with PowerAmerica and other groups on campus as appropriate. 

“Leveraging NC State’s expertise through campus resources like PowerAmerica and the FREEDM Systems Center alongside traditional strengths in electrical and computer engineering as well as computer science should help make this leap ahead for wide bandgap semiconductor technology a reality,” said Mladen Vouk, vice chancellor for research and innovation at NC State.

NC State was also recently awarded up to $15 million for two years — and up to $160 million over 10 years — by the National Science Foundation to partner on a regional research effort to recycle waste materials into fibers for new textiles, ultimately advancing our nation’s capacity for textile innovation that ensures environmental sustainability.

The award, announced in January, will be used to stand up one of two inaugural NSF Regional Innovation Engines (NSF Engines) — both of which are anchored in North Carolina — the Piedmont Triad Regenerative Medicine Engine and the North Carolina Sustainable Textiles Innovation Engine.

A student manipulates glove-shaped wearable technology.
Faculty and students work in the Textile Protection and Comfort Center (TPACC) on Centennial campus. TPACC will be one of the NC State resources for the North Carolina Sustainable Textiles Innovation Engine.

“Thanks to our traditional strengths in technology transfer, NC State is well positioned to lead the Engine’s innovations in research and development,” Chancellor Woodson said. “The Engine also includes partnerships across community colleges, manufacturers, brands, economic development and state government, among others. The team will have the infrastructure and ties to rapidly develop, revitalize and scale a cutting-edge and environmentally sustainable textile industry that can be competitive in the global economy. That can lead to new jobs, new opportunities, and economic prosperity for our citizens.”

The North Carolina Textile Innovation and Sustainability Engine aims to disrupt and revolutionize the $96 billion textile industry, driving advances in smart textiles, wearable technology, medical textiles and protective textiles. It will be led by The Industrial Commons, a non-profit organization with a strong reputation within the textile sector for being a hub of regional, rural innovation with deep local, national and sectoral knowledge and relationships. 

At NC State, the Zeis Textiles Extension unit, the Textile Protection and Comfort Center, and research labs within NC State’s Wilson College of Textiles will provide development, fabrication, testing and training services to the region to help “green” the textile industry.

“The Engine will look for ways to capture and process post-consumer waste at scale, and then process that waste into the building blocks that can become fibers for new textiles,” said Andre West, director of NC State’s Zeis Textiles Extension and co-principal investigator on the NSF grant. “It will also take a broad approach that focuses on all aspects of the sustainability ecosystem.”

According to West, potential key outcomes of the Engine include a decrease in the negative environmental effects of the textile sector, including a reduction in the sector’s carbon footprint; increased U.S. production of textile products; growth in the number of textile jobs; a reduction in the amount of textiles put into the landfill; and the development of new product lines that use circular materials.

“NC State University’s Wilson College of Textiles and our incredible community college, non-profit and industry partners have been collaborating to advance the competitiveness and resilience of the U.S. textile industry for many years,” said David Hinks, dean of the Wilson College of Textiles. “The North Carolina Textile Innovation and Sustainability Engine grant will bring the critical investment piece that will enable us to translate our research and development into new, more sustainable products, processes and businesses. I am proud that we will be focusing our work on lifting up rural communities as well as advancing an industry that is essential not only to our country’s advanced manufacturing base, but also our homeland security.”

Founded in 1899, the Wilson College of Textiles is the only college in North America dedicated to textiles and, as such, has earned a reputation as the destination of choice for anyone who needs textiles expertise — including some of the biggest brands on the planet.

In addition to the FREEDM Systems Center — a smart grid NSF Engineering Research Center formed in 2008, headquartered here — NC State leads an NSF Engineering Research Center called ASSIST, which develops self-powered health monitoring sensors and devices. NC State also leads an NSF Science and Technology Center called STEPS, which seeks to reduce both dependence on mined phosphates and the amount of phosphorus that leaches into soil and water. 

This post was originally published in NC State News.