Highlights –

  • A research and development agreement has been signed between the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and Google to design and produce open-source wafers.
  • The new wafers will be produced by Skywater Technology Inc. at its fab in Bloomington, Minnesota, with assistance from Google in design and financing.

In an effort to lower the price of developing semiconductor devices, the US government announced that it is collaborating with Google LLC to design and produce cutting-edge silicon wafers that will be made available to academic researchers.

As part of the deal, the US Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has entered into a deal with Google to design and produce open-source wafers. By establishing a legal framework that eliminates the high license payments for semiconductor technology, NIST stated that its goal is to foster public and private innovation.

The aim is for NIST to create 40 alternative semiconductor circuit designs tailored for diverse applications. It will achieve the same by collaborating with leading American colleges like the University of Michigan, the University of Maryland, George Washington University, Brown University, and Carnegie Mellon University.

The US has been working to protect the chip manufacturing supply chain industry and aims to guarantee that American academics have access to the technologies they require for ground-breaking research. Last month, an executive order was signed to facilitate billions of dollars in funding for the semiconductor industry included within the bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act.

The new wafers will be produced by Skywater Technology Inc. at its fab in Bloomington, Minnesota, with assistance from Google in design and financing. The deal is designed to assist university and startup researchers who frequently struggle to raise the high costs of chip development. The circuit designs created by NIST will be completely open source, allowing them to be used by small-scale and academic researchers without any limitations or license fees.

According to the Commerce Department, the silicon wafers will be base layer chips with unique architectures, allowing researchers to gauge and test the performance of components mounted on top of them. This could include novel memory technologies, bioelectronics, nanosensors, and other cutting-edge gadgets required for quantum computing and artificial intelligence.

According to Holger Mueller of Constellation Research Inc, the US government is attempting to “prime the pump” for local chip production with the current program that was planned long before the CHIPS Act was conceived. According to Mueller, “The partnership involves Google’s funding, NIST designing the chips, and Skywater manufacturing them. The main benefit is that research institutions will be able to build higher-level chips. It’s a long-term project, so it will be a few years before we can tell if the initiative will help the U.S. become a leader in chip manufacturing once again. It’s a promising start, though.”

The brand-new chips, according to NIST, will be made available to researchers as 200-millimeter silicon discs. Researchers can use various cutting and dicing techniques to divide these into thousands of little chips as required. In the case of modern computers, chips are built using stacked components, with the semiconductor sitting at the bottom layer and more specialized components sitting on top.

Will Grannis, Chief Executive Officer of Google Public Sector, claimed that his company has a long history of being a leader in the open-source community. “Moving to an open-source framework fosters reproducibility, which helps researchers from public and private institutions iterate on each other’s work,” he said. “It also democratizes innovation in nanotechnology and semiconductor research.”

Experts’ Take

Laurie Locascio, Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology and NIST Director, said, “By creating a new and affordable domestic supply of chips for research and development, this collaboration aims to unleash the innovative potential of researchers and startups across the nation. This is a great example of how government, industry, and academic researchers can work together to enhance U.S. leadership in this critically important industry.”

Charles King of Pund-IT Inc, said, “Google, NIST, and Skywater will produce semiconductor wafers — not chips — that researchers and others can use to explore and develop nanotechnology tools and solutions in areas such as microprocessor design and production. It does resonate with the Biden plan, but it seems more about easing and increasing the belief of research projects, as opposed to short-term commercial silicon production. Discussions about the effort also began months before the Biden plan was announced.”