Texas Tech University

Mailbag: Why Semiconductors Matter

Allen Ramsey

July 14, 2023


You may be surprised to learn how much is happening at Texas Tech.

Welcome back to the Mailbag! 

Today's topic is one you will be hearing a lot about over the next few weeks, and we thought we'd jump out in front of it and explain to you why you should care. 

The topic is semiconductor research here at Texas Tech University.

First off, it's important to understand what a semiconductor is. 

According to the National Institute for Standards and Technology, semiconductors, or chips, are tiny electronic devices that are integral to America's economic and national security. 

To put it simply, semiconductors help power just about everything from power tools to phones and computers to fighter jets. 

Now, Texas Tech and West Texas may not be what comes to mind when you think of semiconductors and semiconductor research. In fact, some of you may be surprised to learn just how much work Texas Tech does on semiconductors and how relevant the topic is to West Texas. 

The work being done includes everything from chip design to wide and ultrawide bandgap semiconductor processing to reliability testing and simulation of semiconductor devices. 

And Texas Tech is helping develop the workforce in this crucial area and placing students with industry partners such as X-Fab and Texas Instruments 

Our loyal readers will know that in the Mailbag we try, when it's relevant, to reach out to our experts in whatever field we're writing about. What we quickly found out about our experts in the field of semiconductor research is that we have too many to highlight them all. 

We narrowed down the list a bit with some help from our friends over in the Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering and pinpointed a few of the leaders in the field who work on our campus. 

We started with Donald Lie, a professor and the Keh-Shew Lu Regents Chair in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Lie has an impressive history with semiconductor work. He spent 15 years in both the commercial and defense semiconductor industry as a renowned global leader working on state-of-the-are technologies before coming to Texas Tech in 2007. 

His research, the Radio Frequency System-On-A-Chip lab (RF SOC), works on RF and analog 5G and 6G circuits and systems design in some of the most advanced semiconductor integrated circuits technologies. 

“My group is the only group in Texas that does the chips design in the most advanced gallium nitride technology,” Lie explained. “It's 40 nanometers, and that is the smallest geometry for gallium nitride available. Most of the people, when they work on gallium nitride, they're looking for power, whereas we're looking for both high-speed and high RF power.

“We have access to some very special stuff here, the most advanced in the world, and it's a very manufacturable process that the Department of Defense (DOD) is using.”

Having worked with organizations like the DOD, the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Air Force, Lie explained that research on semiconductors is critical to keeping the country out in front of potential economic and military rivals. 

“Semiconductor microchips are the ‘brains' of the modern electronics industry, enabling major breakthroughs and advancement in AI, communications, sensing, computing, automobile electronics, healthcare, energy, etc. for both commercial and military applications,” Lie said. 

And Lie's group is one helping lead the way on semiconductor research nationwide. 

Lie and RF SOC have won five subcontracts from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and one DARPA prime contract/grant at Texas Tech. They have designed record-setting radio frequency (RF) Integrated Circuits (ICs) and System-on-Chip (SoC)/Silicon-in-Package (SiP) products and prototypes sold internationally and have been awarded eight U.S. patents and one international patent.

We also spoke to professors Hongxing Jiang and Jingyu Lin. Both hold the title of Horn Distinguished Professor at Texas Tech and they are co-directors of the Nano-Photonics Center. 

Their work focuses on wide and ultra-wide bandgap semiconductor processing working with nitrogen triiodide. 

To put it simply, they're working on the next generation of semiconductors. 

“This material, because of its material properties, can handle higher power, higher voltage in nature,” Lin explained. “That's why we're moving into the wide bandgap. It handles the higher voltage and higher power of the materials. So, if we don't do the research now later on, we're going to be behind in the country as a whole. We'll be losing to other places.”

As Jiang explained it, the transition to wide and ultra-wide bandgap semiconductors will have a massive impact on any number of things. For instance, because a unit of the same size would be able to handle more power, charging times for things like iPhones, computers and even electric cars would reduce drastically. 

But the applications of their research, and other work being done at Texas Tech wouldn't be limited to commercial use. 

“For defense purposes, you have radar, for instance, where the distance for detection is very important,” Jiang said. “If you want to be able to detect at a greater distance with the older way you have to build a bigger radar, or we can use newer technology to detect at greater range with something the same size.”

And if that's not enough for you to get excited about their work, there's an application every Texan should welcome with open arms as we deal with another heat-dome summer.

The stuff they're working on could well be the fundamental solution to securing a stable power grid. 

“The normal semiconductor coding standards, with a big surge, you have a huge voltage put in, so those devices fail,” she said. “The wide bandgap will eventually slowly replace some of those traditional stuff. It will protect us as a nation from those energy surges and losing a lot of power.”

Now, we don't know about you all, but up here in the Office of Communications & Marketing, we learned a good bit about semiconductors while working on this article. 

And now we know why they matter, that we definitely care (I, for one, do not want to have to keep my air conditioner set at 78 during the summer) and that some of our people here at Texas Tech are making sure we're on the right path to securing the future. 

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