After completing his PhD at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Chirag Gupta decided to take a break from academic research to try his hand in the tech industry. As a device engineer with component maker Maxim Integrated, he got a crash course in just how versatile, reliable and cheap the ubiquitous semiconductor silicon is.
“There are many technologies out there better than silicon. But the important part is they need to be cost-effective,” he says. “People never buy something which is better but is twice as expensive. Most of time they say, ‘You know what, I’m happy with the cheaper thing I’m using.’”
Now that he’s returning to academic research as an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, that experience colors his understanding of the new materials and devices he studies. Gupta plans to help make another semiconductor, gallium nitride, easier and cheaper to fabricate into transistors and other devices to power the next generation of electronics.
Gupta earned his bachelor’s degree at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur before coming to UC-Santa Barbara, where he studied gallium nitride transistors. At UW-Madison, he hopes to pick that thread back up. “High-speed communications like 5G are enabled by high-speed transistors, and I foresee that’s going to be the case for 6G or 7G,” he says. “For this you need highly efficient, high-frequency, high-performance transistors. So, it’s a very exciting time to be in semiconductors.”
At UW-Madison, he will be fabricating new gallium nitride devices, and potentially gallium oxide devices, making heavy use of the College of Engineering’s state-of-the-art Nanoscale Fabrication Center. To aid his research, he is bringing some new equipment to the center, including an annealer that can reach 1,200 degrees Celsius and a high resolution optical lithography tool that can possibly write pattern sizes as low as a quarter of a micron.
Gupta says it’s not just the fabrication center that drew him to UW-Madison but also the university’s breadth and depth of research. “UW-Madison is a great place to be a device engineer. You have the full assembly here. There’s a great materials department and all the facilities to support their work. Then there are the people working on devices, which I will be helping out with. Then you have circuits and systems faculty,” he says. “There’s a whole pipeline going from materials to full systems. We can generate very unique intellectual property and unique solutions for challenging problems.”
His time in industry has helped Gupta refine his research mission. “I think it has calibrated me or equipped me to think about what you need in order to make technology work and reach customers. Because at the end of the day, you want whatever you are doing to be useful to a large population,” he says. “Industry has given me a perspective where I know a little bit about what it takes to make a product. It kind of focuses my research and I believe it makes it more productive.”
The university also offers something else that Gupta missed while working in industry: students. One of his favorite parts of being a graduate student was mentoring undergraduates in the lab, watching them come in with zero experience and develop into accomplished researchers in just a few months. He hopes to do the same for undergrads and graduate students at UW-Madison, both in the lab and the classroom. In the fall of 2021 he is looking forward to teaching his first class, a graduate course on semiconductors.
Author: Jason Daley