Defense Department awards nearly $27M for USC-led coalition to boost microelectronics production for 5G/6G

The funds for the Microelectronics Commons project support a USC-led hub involving 16 other university, community college and corporate collaborators.
By USC staff

This article was originally published by The USC Newsroom

The U.S. Department of Defense has announced that it has awarded approximately $27 million for a USC-led Microelectronics Commons project. The university will lead a coalition of research and industry organizations with the power to accelerate the development and manufacturing of microelectronics in the United States. 

The CHIPS and Science Act of 2022 this year provides a total of $2 billion for the Microelectronics Commons program, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering David A. Honey said at a news conference last week.  

In all, eight hubs involving more than 360 institutions nationwide are involved in the program, he said.  

USC will work with 15 other institutions on the Microelectronics Commons project. (Photo/DarioLoPresti via Envato Elements)

Scientists and engineers at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and its Information Sciences Institute (ISI) will lead a coalition of 16 other universities, contractors and workforce-development partners to quickly translate the sophisticated materials and devices developed in academic labs to fabrication. Their work will also focus on 5G/6G technologies.    

“It’s USC’s privilege to be leading and collaborating with the powerhouse research universities and industry in Southern California, addressing national security, helping solve global problems, bringing major technological advances and jobs to our region, and ensuring U.S. economic growth,” USC President Carol L. Folt said.   

The coalition is led by researchers at ISI and the USC Viterbi Ming Hsieh Department of Electronic and Computer Engineering. The partner institutions within higher education ​are Caltech; Morgan State University in Baltimore; North Carolina A&T State University; Pasadena City College; University of California, Irvine; UCLA; University of California, Riverside; University of California, San Diego; and University of California, Santa Barbara. 

Among the many companies involved are The Boeing Co., HRL Laboratories, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, Northrop Grumman, PDF Solutions, Raytheon and Teledyne Scientific Co. 

The award reflects USC’s accelerated focus on computing. Earlier this year, Folt announced a $1 billion-plus, multipronged initiative, USC Frontiers of Computing, to propel computing education and research into a new period of innovation. This effort will drive improvements in areas ranging from improving human health and well-being to increasing economic growth and developing a computing-savvy workforce for tomorrow.   

As part of Frontiers of Computing, the university is creating the USC School of Advanced Computing, recruiting new computing faculty and researchers across the sciences — such as in data science, quantum computing, and blockchain — as well as instilling in every USC student a greater awareness of computing and issues with AI, such as ethical development and use of the technology.  

Frontiers of Computing also is a catalyst for the Los Angeles tech corridor near Playa Vista and Marina del Rey known as Silicon Beach. USC aims to draw additional educational programming and research to the area. Silicon Beach is home to two of the university’s important technology research institutes — ISI and the Institute for Creative Technologies.    

“This federal award recognizes USC Viterbi and its research institute, ISI, with their legacy of achievements and expertise in computing, as innovative institutions that not only nurture the professionals who revolutionize technology but also bring together key collaborators to deliver the best and most strategic solutions for a challenge with global impact,” USC Viterbi School of Engineering Dean Yannis C. Yortsos said. 

Inspirational and intentional  

The coalition has an inspirational name, California DREAMS, an acronym for the California Defense Ready Electronics and Microdevices Superhub. 

“The DREAMS coalition will unite us and our strengths to work together much more closely than we ever have, and in a much broader collaboration than has ever existed in this area,” said Stephen Crago, associate director of ISI and the principal investigator for the USC-led hub. He is also a research associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at USC Viterbi. 

“California DREAMS brings experts together from across Southern California to provide research-based solutions that will impact our world positively,” said Ishwar K. Puri, USC’s senior vice president of research and innovation. “For U.S. chipmaking to be globally competitive, we must make dramatic investments to grow our talent and research infrastructure. The scale of funding secured by the consortium and its far-flung reach offers strong testimony to the stellar work and global leadership of USC’s researchers.”  

California DREAMS will concentrate its efforts in 5G/6G technologies and on the broader effort to establish advanced communications networks, focusing mainly on hardware, Crago said. One goal of the superhub will be to accelerate the transition from invention to impact.  

Within the university, “we develop innovative technologies that are better than anything that’s ever been done before, and potentially world-changing,” Crago said. “This program will improve the odds that creative science will lead to devices and solutions that make a difference to the Department of Defense, the commercial markets and the American people.” 

“Southern California has a long history of addressing the nation’s needs in aerospace and defense and expanding the benefits to the public,” said Andrea Belz, vice dean of transformative initiatives at USC Viterbi. “We are delighted to step up to the challenge by leading the hardware and software development for the next generation of communication technologies.”  

USC and the superhub collaborators have laboratories and fabrication facilities capable of producing the technologies and capabilities needed for rapid “lab-to-fab” development for the U.S. Department of Defense.  

Scaling these advanced technologies to high-volume production while still preserving high yields is a major challenge, said Rehan Kapadia, the Colleen and Roberto Padovani Early Career Chair in Electrical and Computer Engineering and associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at USC Viterbi. 

“This is a really big deal,” Kapadia said. “We’re trying to figure out a way to build the connective tissue between what we would call academic-scale labs — like what we have here [at USC’s John O’Brien Nanofabrication Laboratory] and what Caltech and UCSB have — and the high-volume manufacturing fabs making millions of devices.”   

Training for Southern California  

​Semiconductors, which run everything from smartphones to fighter jets and have enabled many of the advances in the modern world, are continuously becoming more complex and powerful. Breakthroughs in materials and techniques have allowed engineers to go from fitting four transistors on a silicon wafer in the 1960s to etching trillions onto an even smaller-size platform.  

In the 1990s, the United States had about 37% of the global market in these semiconductors, but that share has slipped to 12%. A crucial goal of the superhub is to inspire the next generation of students to design and build microelectronics, with an emphasis on recruiting community college students.   

Researchers anticipate that over the next five years, there may be even more opportunities to further their involvement in the national effort to return microelectronics manufacturing to the United States. 

“This is a key win for USC,” said Craig Knoblock, executive director of ISI. “It again demonstrates the university’s long-held status as an innovator in research and education, as well as its ability to collaborate with other institutions and private industry.”