EPSCoR - Montana NSF

Manufacturing Montana’s Electronic Future
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Cell phones, flash drives, computers, etc., the manufacture of the transistors making up the integrated circuits that drive these everyday devices are associated with top electronic companies – Intel, Texas Instruments, and Toshiba to name a few. But in one corner of Cobleigh Hall at MSU, a group of students designed, fabricated, and tested these metal oxide semiconductor transistors (CMOS) as part of an undergraduate, senior-level course in Electrical Engineering. According to Professor Todd Kaiser of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, these were the first such devices manufactured in Montana.

During the semester-long course, the 13 enrolled students learned about, and applied the series of steps required to fabricate the transistors. Starting with a template, or “mask”, the manufacture involves chemical and photographic processing, which gradually creates the circuit on the transistors. The masks were developed as part of an undergraduate research project by student Stilson Applin, who has since graduated and is now working as a production engineer for Micron. As with any lab work, the manufacture requires attention to detail, knowledge of safety protocols, and theoretical understanding of the process and product. Modeled after similar laboratory courses at engineering powerhouses, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, students worked in a clean room with microfabrication tools to create the CMOS transistors. The laboratory component of the course reinforced the theoretical concepts learned in the classroom and gave these future engineers knowledge and skills that will be invaluable as they move beyond their undergraduate training.

The fabrication of these transistors involves highly specialized equipment and the use of a clean room. A clean room is an environment that has a low level of environmental pollutants, such as dust and other particles, that could contaminate the manufacture of devices. Such a facility exists at MSU as part of the Montana Microfabrication Facility, funded in part by Montana NSF EPSCoR. Since clean rooms are a common feature of engineering manufacture, and microfabrication is the cornerstone of so many modern research and industry areas, “All of these skills will be marketable to future employers and graduate schools,” Kaiser said. The opportunity for undergraduates to enhance their classroom learning with this experience was important to Dr. Kaiser, who also received funding from the National Science Foundation to develop and offer this course.

The course is being offered again this spring and Dr. Kaiser hopes to adapt the course for middle and high school students and teachers, teaching them not only about the fabrication of electrical components, but the engineering approach to applied problem solving.