Reflecting its worldwide leadership in the search for new computing technologies, the University of Notre Dame has received two of 12 prestigious grants for cutting-edge nanoelectronics research that were awarded recently by the Semiconductor Research Corporation’s Nanoelectronics Research Initiative (SRC-NRI) and the National Science Foundation.
“Universities were only allowed to submit two proposals each to the program,” says Peter Kilpatrick, McCloskey Dean of the College of Engineering. “The fact that both of Notre Dame’s proposals were funded is a sign of the high quality and competitiveness nationally of our research in this critical field.”
According to the program solicitation, the aim of the joint 12-grant program, which totals $20 million over four years, is to support the search for new technologies that can replace today’s transistors. They build on previous research fostered by the SRC-NRI, which represents global computer chip manufacturers IBM, Intel, Texas Instruments, GLOBALFOUNDRIES and Micron Technology.
The two funded teams at Notre Dame—led by Wolfgang Porod, Frank M. Freimann Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and director of the Notre Dame Center for Nano Science and Technology (NDnano); and Craig Lent, Frank M. Freimann Professor of Engineering—are truly multidisciplinary, bringing together electrical engineers, chemists, physicists, computer scientists and biologists to tackle problems of immense complexity.
Porod and co-investigators Gary Bernstein, Xiaobo Hu, Michael Niemier, and Gyorgy Csaba, received $1.8 million ($1.6 million from the NSF and $200,000 from the SRC-NRI) to explore a radical new approach to computational “thinking”—an approach based not on the familiar binary logic of 1s and 0s, but on physics-inspired and brain-like wave activity. The research envisions a future in which computer chips contain millions of cores, and processing elements in networks model the brain’s biological structure.
“This work will not merely lead to incremental improvements in information processing systems,” says Porod, “but will open the door to an entirely new approach to computing and computer architecture.”
Lent, along with colleagues Greg Snider, Alex Kandel, and Kenneth Henderson, were awarded $1.75 million ($1.55 million from NSF and $200,000 from SRC-NRI) to advance a similarly unconventional type of computing known as Quantum-dot Cellular Automata (QCA), which was pioneered at Notre Dame. In QCA, the familiar switches of current silicon-based transistors are replaced by single molecules that interact with neighboring molecules through changes in charge.
“Such molecular level computing has the potential to generate ultra-small devices that use very little power,” says Lent. “Generating heat has been the limiting factor in making computer circuits smaller and smaller. In this collaborative effort between Engineering and Chemistry our aim is to design and build molecules specifically suited to the task.”
Notre Dame has been focused on nanoelectronics research since the 1980s and is the lead institution in the SRC-NRI-funded Midwest Institute for Nanoelectronics Discovery (MIND), which is part of a network of 24 universities conducting nanotechnology research around the United States.
“The search for a new semiconductor device that will provide the U.S. with a leadership position in the global era of nanoelectronics relies on making discoveries at these kinds of advanced universities,” said Jeff Welser, director of the Nanoelectronics Research Initiative for SRC. “These schools have the talent and capabilities needed to produce critical research that helps to raise both our national competitiveness and economic progress.”