University of Arkansas’ $36M chip prototype facility to open in 2025

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 2,546 views 

Alan Mantooth speaks at the groundbreaking of the Multi-User Silicon Carbide Research and Fabrication Facility.

Construction has started on a first-of-its-kind semiconductor facility at the University of Arkansas, according to a Monday (Aug. 21) news release. The $36 million chip prototype fabrication facility is expected to be completed in January 2025.

UA and industry leaders and researchers broke ground Friday (Aug. 18) on the 18,660-square-foot Multi-User Silicon Carbide Research and Fabrication Facility, or MUSiC. It will be built at Arkansas Research and Technology Park in south Fayetteville. Designers are Tsoi Kobus and Wittenberg Delony & Davidson Architects. The general contractor is Whiting Turner.

MUSiC will allow the federal government – through national labs – businesses and universities to develop semiconductor prototypes with silicon carbide, a capability that’s currently unavailable. Silicon carbide is a semiconductor that can outperform basic silicon chips, and silicon carbide electronics can operate in extreme environments. At the new facility, 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 the high-volume manufacturing,” said Alan Mantooth, Distinguished Professor of electrical engineering and principal investigator for MUSiC. “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 building will feature 8,000 square feet of clean rooms for fabrication and testing. Also, education and training within the facility are expected to help develop the workforce that Mantooth and other leaders have said is key to bringing semiconductor manufacturing back to the United States after it was offshored in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

In 2021, the UA received a nearly $18 million grant from the National Science Foundation for the facility’s equipment and infrastructure, but not for its construction, Mantooth said. The building is being paid for by bonds issued by the UA. Officials are working to raise money to offset the cost. The estimated total construction cost is $36 million.

“This is truly a special day in the life of the University of Arkansas,” Chancellor Charles Robinson said. “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.”

The day before the groundbreaking, the UA and the Arkansas Department of Commerce hosted the CHIPS America Summit. In this event, research, industry and government leaders discussed semiconductor-related opportunities resulting from the CHIPS (Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors) and Science Act that Congress approved 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, R-Rogers, and Arkansas Secretary of Commerce Hugh McDonald.

In the event, Elrod noted that before the pandemic, 90% of the world’s top chips were manufactured at one facility in Taiwan. Amid a chip shortage during the pandemic, the government looked to add chip manufacturing capacity in the United States.

“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).”