Semiconductors, or “CHIPS,” may be small, but over the last several months, finding the resources and materials to combat their scarcity has proved to be a behemoth-sized challenge.

U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, academic leaders from Virginia Tech, and other industry stakeholders are working together in an effort to tackle this challenge head on.

On Sept. 22, Warner visited the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) and met with researchers and executives from the College of Engineering, the Virginia Tech Office of Research and Innovation, and the Center for Economic and Community Engagement, among others, to begin brainstorming for the creation of a pipeline of students ready to fill these in-demand research and development as well as manufacturing jobs upon graduation.

Warner, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a longtime advocate of investing in domestic semiconductor manufacturing, praised the university for its work to unite the public and private sectors through its research and industry partnerships in both Blacksburg and at the Innovation Campus in Alexandria.

“Our nation must maintain international leadership in advancing technology. The CHIPS and Science Act is a huge step forward,” he said. “Virginia Tech is doing groundbreaking work in this area, and it’s exciting to learn more about opportunities to collaborate.”

Current research at the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) is a prime example of not just the importance of semiconductor chips in our everyday lives, but also the steps being taken to address the ongoing shortage.

Masoud Agah, an ECE faculty member and Virginia Microelectronics Consortium Professor of Engineering, was one of the researchers attending the CHIPS roundtable. He is developing a skin sensor that can detect volatile organic compounds being emitted from human skin for biomarker discovery and disease diagnoses. 

Luke Lester, Roanoke Electric Steel Professor and ECE department head, was also present at Thursday’s meeting and noted the important role that semiconductor chips play in a variety of electrical and computer engineering components and research projects.

“Much of the electrical and computer engineering profession is based around making components smaller and more efficient,” said Lester. “Semiconductor chips can be found in vehicles, smartphones, and medical devices and are also being used to develop improved technologies for data centers.  Components that are ubiquitous and touch the lives of people every day.”

Recently, four ECE faculty members were awarded a $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant as part of the Electrical, Communications and Cyber Systems' (ECCS) flagship and largest program: Addressing Systems Challenges through Engineering Teams (ASCENT). ECCS and the ASCENT program support transformative research that fuels progress in engineering applications with high societal impacts.

This year, the program focuses on future semiconductor technologies, and the group of Virginia Tech researchers has proposed optically driven ultra-wide bandgap power semiconductor technologies for grid power electronics.

Julia M. Ross, the Paul and Dorothea Torgersen Dean of Engineering at Virginia Tech, also attended Thursday’s roundtable and was optimistic about the future of the semiconductor industry in Virginia. 

"Conversations like this will help us implement innovative research and cutting-edge curriculum that prepare our students for careers related to the CHIPS Act," said Ross. "The legislation's goal of creating manufacturing jobs, as well as expanded research and development, touches many of our students and faculty here at Virginia Tech, and we look forward to maximizing its positive impact."


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