From Idea to the Marketplace in 13 Short Years

It took more than 13 years but a landmark discovery by current Beckman Institute researcher Joe Lyding and former Beckman research theme co-chair Karl Hess is going into mass production. In 1996, in a conversation in Hess’s office, the two hit on the idea to use deuterium as a way to reduce hot electron damage in integrated circuit transistors. Last week, an agreement was reached with electronics giant Samsung to license their method for use in semiconductor devices.

A scientific discovery that began with an ‘aha’ moment 13 years ago is finally coming to the silicon chip marketplace in a development that should greatly improve the reliability of the next generation of electronic devices. The arc of that discovery, from idea to commercial application in microchips, also provides testament to the value of patience when it comes to doing translational research.

Two researchers at the University of Illinois’ Beckman Institute, Joe Lyding and Karl Hess, had a light bulb moment in 1996 when Hess was asking Lyding about his work on desorbing deuterium – instead of hydrogen – from silicon by using energetic electrons. Lyding responded: “Well, has anybody tried deuterium in transistors?” That is when the normally unassuming Hess leapt from his chair and said, “That’s it.”

The two began a collaboration aimed at replacing hydrogen with deuterium to mitigate what are known as hot-carrier effects that reduce the lifetime of silicon chips and the electronic devices they power. They reported on their findings in a seminal paper, Reduction of Hot Electron Degradation in Metal Oxide Semiconductor Transistors by Deuterium Processing, that appeared in Applied Physics Letters in 1996. The paper has been cited hundreds of times over the years.

The researchers found that by substituting deuterium, a non-radioactive, stable isotope of hydrogen (also known as heavy hydrogen) they could improve the lifetime of silicon chips by as much as 50 times over. The method works because deuterium bonds more effectively to silicon surfaces than hydrogen, thereby immunizing the chip from hot-carrier effects.

The factors favoring deuterium over hydrogen weren’t fully understood 13 years ago, and it was believed that hot-carrier effects would scale away as technology progressed. But as devices got smaller, and were loaded with more functions that required more processing power, damage from electrons zipping through a chip became a bigger issue.

From the discovery moment Lyding and Hess enjoyed back in 1996 until 2010 the technology went through a very long development and patent process before its integration into the chip manufacturing process. But in late January of this year a licensing agreement was signed between electronics giant Samsung and researchers Lyding, Hess, former Lyding postdoctoral associate Jinju Lee, and the University of Illinois. Illinois holds six patents on the technology and Lyding said other patents for the same method, close to 200 in all, date back to their discovery, paper, and Illinois’s patents.

Cell phones are a prime example of an application that could benefit from the method but other uses such as in computers where reliability and longevity of the device are more important than speed are also potential applications.      

 Translating scientific discovery like the one made by Hess and Lyding into products that reward both the researcher and their academic institution is an involved and almost always lengthy process. Lyding said patience is the key to success.  

“The University of Illinois deserves a great deal of credit for exhibiting the institutional patience needed to see the deuterium technology through the 13 years from discovery to a license agreement,” Lyding said. “At many times during this period the entire process was fragile and could have easily succumbed to internal or external pressures. In view of the costs and the risks, decisions had to be made at the highest levels to keep the entire process afloat.”

In particular, Lyding praised the Illinois Office of Technology Management (OTM) and the Office of the Vice President for Technology and Economic Development for their efforts during the process.

“The OTM continued to support the patenting activities and sustained a concentrated licensing effort over the past 3 years that led to the positive outcome.”

To read the original paper, click here.