Sustainable microchip manufacturing is focus of MIT NSF grant

a pile of abandoned computer chips

A new grant from the NSF will support an MIT-led program aimed in part at showing a pathway to cutting the significant e-waste that finds its way to landfills. Photo: Roger Shija/Pixab

An MIT-led team has been awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation to help transition the manufacturing of microchips to more sustainable processes that, for example, can reduce e-waste landfills by allowing repair of chips, or enable users to swap out a rogue chip in a motherboard rather than tossing out the entire laptop or cellphone.

The project, “Building a Sustainable, Innovative Ecosystem for Microchip Manufacturing,” will be led by Dr. Anuradha Murthy Agarwal, a principal research scientist at the Materials Research Laboratory.

“Our goal is to help transition microchip manufacturing towards a sustainable industry,” says Agarwal. “We aim to do that by partnering with industry in a multimodal approach that prototypes technology designs to minimize energy consumption and waste generation, retrains the semiconductor workforce, and creates a roadmap for a new industrial ecology to mitigate materials-critical limitations and supply-chain constraints.”

Agarwal’s co-principal investigators are Samuel Serna, an MIT visiting professor and assistant professor of physics at Bridgewater State University, and two MIT faculty affiliated with the Materials Research Laboratory: Juejun Hu, John Elliott Professor of Materials Science and Engineering; and Lionel Kimerling, Thomas Lord Professor of Materials Science and Engineering.

The training component of the project will also create curricula for multiple audiences. “At Bridgewater State University, we will create a new undergraduate course on microchip manufacturing sustainability, and eventually adapt it for audiences from K-12, as well as incumbent employees,” says Serna.

Dr. Sajan Saini and Dr. Erik Verlage of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE), and Dr. Randolph Kirchain from the MIT Materials Systems Laboratory, who have led MIT initiatives in Virtual Reality digital education, materials criticality, and roadmapping, are key contributors.

The project also includes DMSE graduate students Drew Weninger and Luigi Ranno, and undergraduate Samuel Bechtold from Bridgewater State University’s Physics Department.

The MIT team is one of 16 to receive awards addressing sustainable materials for global challenges through Phase 1 of the NSF’s Convergence Accelerator program. Launched in 2019, the program targets solutions to especially compelling societal or scientific challenges at an accelerated pace, by incorporating a multidisciplinary research approach.

“Solutions for today’s national-scale societal challenges are hard to solve within a single
discipline. Instead, these challenges require convergence to merge ideas, approaches, and
technologies from a wide range of diverse sectors, disciplines, and experts,” explains the NSF in its description of the Convergence Accelerator program. Phase 1 of the award involves a planning effort to expand the initial concept, identify new team members, participate in an NSF development curriculum, and create an early prototype.

The 2023 Spring Meeting of the Integrated Photonics Systems Roadmap-International (IPSR-I), to be held June 7-9 at MIT, will serve as a kick-off for several working groups focused on the project’s technology, workforce, and ecology activity areas.

Teams advancing to Phase 2 teams will build upon the Convergence Accelerator curriculum to focus on impact-oriented use-case prototyping and develop a sustainability model to continue activities after the duration of NSF support. At the end of Phase 2, teams are expected to deliver high-return solutions that address societal needs at scale.

Two other MIT-led teams also won Phase 1 NSF Convergence Accelerator grants for projects in the Sustainable Materials for Global Challenges research track. “Sustainable Topological Energy Materials (STEM) for Energy-efficient Applications,” is led by Mingda Li, the Class of ’47 Career Development Professor in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering. “Mind over Matter: Socioresilient Materials Design: A New Paradigm For Addressing Global Challenges in Sustainability,” is led by Christine Ortiz, the Morris Cohen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering.