SAN MATEO, Calif. Lucent Technologies and Agere Systems Inc. are attempting to spin-off their nanotechnology and electron-beam lithography lab in Murray Hill, N.J. as an advanced prototyping foundry that would be run by a consortium of local public and private investors. New Jersey officials are working to broker a deal between five state universities and a number of local companies to set up the New Jersey Center for Nanotechnology, which would take over the facility by July 1.
It's not clear whether the deal, still in an early stage, will succeed. However, the move is a sign of Lucent's diminishing ability to maintain at least some of the basic research conducted at Bell Labs, including the e-beam work once seen as a contender for future semiconductor lithography.
Under the current proposal, Princeton, Rutgers and three other New Jersey universities would run Lucent's Silicon Fabrication Research Laboratory (SFRL), which operates a 16,400-square-foot Class 100 clean room, a 200-square-foot e-beam lithography area and a small Class 10 area. Lucent and Agere would donate an estimated $150 million in equipment for their stake in the consortium.
"It's one of the world's leading optical MEMS microelectromechanical systems facilities. It can also produce a wide variety of other MEMS and nano devices. And the e-beam machine is, I believe, one of five in the world," said John V. Tesoriero, who is overseeing the consortium effort as executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology.
The lab helped design Lucent's Omega optical router, and currently employs about 50 Lucent workers. However, Lucent and Agere have indicated they will no longer have funding to keep SFRL running past this summer.
"The consortium would operate the facility as a research center and also use it on a foundry basis for other companies who need that kind of expertise for prototyping nano devices," said Tesoriero. "We are hoping we can pull this off. Of course it couldn't come at a worse time."
Indeed, the New Jersey Commission for Science and Technology recently had its $25 million annual budget slashed to $15 million. The state of New Jersey itself is running a $3 billion deficit, he said.
The New Jersey Institute of Technology is currently drafting financial papers to incorporate the consortium. Tesoriero estimates it would cost between $6 million to $8 million per year to run the lab.
"We hope much of it would be supported by National Science Foundation research grants, and development grants from the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy, and some corporate support from companies who want to be part of the consortium or use the facility," he said.
NSF is already funding many centers under the National Nanotechnology Initiative including ones at Cornell, Columbia and one being constructed in Albany, N.Y. as a partnership between the State University of New York and IBM Corp.
The consortium idea got started last fall when Lucent began discussions with university researchers to see if they were interested in using the e-beam facility part-time. That led to talks about part-time use of the entire SFRL, which in turn evolved into discussions of spinning off the unit to a consortium.
"What is clear to me is it's a unique facility in the state and probably in the country," said Stephan Danforth, chairman of the ceramic and materials engineering department at Rutgers, who toured SFRL with a number of other university researchers a few months ago to assess the concept of a spin-off.
Most people attending that meeting were in favor of the deal, Danforth said. However, "with the current budget situation in the state, it's very poignant to be asking the question of whether the state can afford to maintain this kind of facility."
"This is all in a concept stage," said Tesoriero. "We have a couple companies saying they are interested. I am hopeful. There's a lot of things that need to fall into place, but we have some good people working on it.
"It has to happen before July 1, because of how the funding is structured and the time lines for Lucent and Agere," he added.
Throughout the 1990s, Bell Labs researchers developed a projection e-beam lithography system called Scalpel, suitable for production of ASICs and other advanced logic devices. The technology appeared to be on the cusp of commercial development when both Applied Materials Inc. and ASML, the Dutch-based lithography giant, created a joint venture called eLith that intended to take Bell Labs' Scalpel technology and make it production-worthy.
But support for eLith abruptly ended in late 2000 when semiconductor companies that had been interested in the technology turned to a similar projection e-beam approach backed by IBM Microelectronics and Nikon Corp. That technology is aimed at the 70-nanometer technology node, which is expected to move into early production in 2004. Nikon currently is integrating IBM's projection optics module, called Prevail, with Nikon's scanner platform.
With additional reporting by David Lammers.