UB to Lead $7.5 Million Project to Improve Computer Chip Reliability and Security Via Revolutionary Testing Advancements

University at Buffalo researchers from multiple departments will play a key role in the new $7.5 million project. Bottom row, from left: Paras Prasad, principal investigator, and Luis Velarde. Middle row, from left: Jonathan Bird, co-principal investigator, Hao Zeng and Mark Swihart. Top row, from left: Andrey Kuzmin, Vasili Perebeinos and Alexander Baev. Credit: Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo

The University at Buffalo has been selected by the Department of Defense (DoD) to lead a $7.5 million project to develop new concepts for precision testing of important qualities of semiconductor chips.

Research goals include increasing fundamental understanding of physical processes that could be used to evaluate chip performance and security, and creating new, ultra-sensitive testing strategies that build on this knowledge.

The research is funded by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research through the DoD’s highly competitive Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI).

“Our ambitious MURI project focuses on testing the structure, function, operation and security of the integrated circuits that comprise semiconductor chips,” says UB researcher Paras Prasad, the project’s principal investigator. “We have a great team, and this is exciting work.

“Microelectronic circuits are omnipresent in our lives, from our phones, computers, cars and appliances to all kinds of industrial and military equipment. We will develop new and dramatically improved ways to ensure that computer chips are authentic and will work as expected. This helps to avoid potentially devastating consequences of either intentional or unintentional malfunction of everything from smartphones to fighter jets.”

Prasad, PhD, is SUNY Distinguished Professor in UB’s departments of chemistry, physics, medicine and electrical engineering, and executive director of UB’s Institute for Lasers, Photonics and Biophotonics (ILPB).

He will coordinate the work of a team of researchers from several institutions, including UB, Columbia University, Boston University, the University of Maryland, the University of Arizona, the University of Central Florida, the National University of Singapore and the University of Cambridge. All partners, including numerous UB scientists and engineers, will make important contributions.

Semiconductor chips are ‘the heart of electronic products’

“The semiconductor chip is the heart of electronic products: Your cell phone, computer, tablet, television, even your washing machine — everything’s got a chip in it, and these chips are incredibly complex, miniature circuits. What our project is about is establishing new techniques for probing or monitoring chips so that you can enhance their performance even further,” says Jonathan Bird, PhD, professor and chair of electrical engineering at UB and a co-principal investigator on the grant.

The MURI award supports a variety of studies, including several that aim to exploit the power of quantum science and engineering, Prasad says. Monitoring heat generation, using advanced microscopy to study circuits, and detecting ultra-weak electric and magnetic signals around chips are among many areas of interest.

In a project summary, Prasad and UB colleagues Alexander Baev and Mark Swihart explained the importance of the research: “Ensuring the proper operation and security of microelectronics is essential for modern life. These microelectronic circuits are essentially enormous networks of transistors. A single computer chip may contain up to trillions of transistors, with features as small as 5 nanometers (the width of a human hair is approximately 50,000 nanometers). Probing complex networks of such miniscule devices requires new methods and approaches.”

Research is driven by a large interdisciplinary team of experts

“This MURI project brings together an exemplary team of experts who will use their expertise in chemistry, physics and engineering to solve crucial problems pertaining to chip technology,” says Venu Govindaraju, PhD, UB vice president for research and economic development. “UB’s leadership on large collaborative projects provides students with valuable opportunities to engage in cutting-edge research, moving us closer to our goal of situating UB among the Top 25 public research universities in the country.”

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