Originally created 07/10/98

Team seeks silicon alternatives



COLUMBIA -- In the future, computers will zoom at speeds that leave today's machines in the dust. Radar systems will see farther and detect more. Electronic equipment will survive longer on the battlefield.

University of South Carolina Professor Asif Khan works toward that future every day.

Mr. Khan and Professor Tangali Sudarshan head a cutting-edge microelectronics and sensors research project seeking to develop alternatives to silicon. This new material could handle more power and more heat than the silicon that is the backbone of current technology.

It's a project that appeals to the Defense Department, as well as to private industry. Mr. Khan envisions a new growth of forward-looking technology companies settling in South Carolina to build on the university's research and to hire the crop of students being trained there.

"We are trying to create a Silicon Valley in South Carolina," Mr. Khan said.

Although that effort is in its infancy, there has been a recent growth spurt in high-tech development in the Midlands.

The Defense Department hopes the university's research yields technology that could be used to make satellite and radar systems more sensitive and improve their ability to detect enemy missiles.

Juergen Pohlman, acting director of science and technology for the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, said the research represents the government's best hopes for improving the detection, tracking and targeting of enemy missiles.

"Quite a few agencies are betting on it," he said.

The university sees Mr. Khan's project as a way the university can be a leader in the nation's efforts in high-tech development, said Marsha Torr, vice provost for research.

"If we're successful, we're talking about a global, multibillion-dollar industry that will really dominate the electronics industry for the foreseeable future," she said. "Instead of playing catch-up, it's an area where we have a big lead."

Three million dollars in start-up costs from the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization helped launch the project a year ago.

Mr. Sudarshan, a professor of electrical and computer engineering who has been at the university since 1979, pushed for the "wide band gap" project, which refers to the materials researchers are trying to create.

"If we can minimize defects, then we will create a market for this technology," he said.

Researchers hope to generate some prototypes by late summer, Ms. Torr said.

Mr. Khan, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate, joined the team about a year ago, lured from private industry in Minnesota to the university to direct the microelectronics laboratory.

He rattled off a list of high-tech applications the project could influence: It could be used to make light sources more efficient. It could help detect and measure ultraviolet light, which could help protect people from skin cancer. It could be used in sensors to detect flames or fire in machinery and would provide the blue-green part of the color spectrum to build full-color displays.

Silicon carbide could be used in sensors on engines in cars, airplanes or missiles to detect flames or monitor gas flow. It is especially good for products like airplanes and missiles in which weight is a factor, because the bulky cooling system needed for silicon would be unnecessary. The same goes for oil-drilling rigs, which function in extreme heat underground.

"This material is revolutionizing the number of applications you can dream of," Mr. Khan said. "It has tremendous commercial and military potential."

Maybe so. But an independent semiconductor analyst from the real Silicon Valley in California called attempts to create silicon alternatives "underdog, dark-horse efforts."

"Even if those solutions do promise some sort of marginal advantage over today's technology, they never can get a toehold because the economics of silicon keep rolling like a steamroller," said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst with Dataquest, a high-tech market research organization. "Until silicon really does run out of steam, anything coming along that promises some benefits above and beyond is really facing an uphill battle."

Mr. Brookwood was not familiar with the university's research. But he said the Defense Department often funds research that much later might be adopted by private technology companies.

Larry Druffel, president of the South Carolina Research Authority, a public, nonprofit research and development corporation, said the potential is there but only if the professors are successful.

"Some of the current technologies are reaching the end of their natural capabilities, and you need to find new ways. The wide band gap approach is one of the hopefuls," he said.