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October 06, 2020 | Tom Ballard

IC COHORT 2 UPDATE: Lux Semiconductors gains commercial traction during its two years at ORNL

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Participants in Cohort 2 of the “Innovation Crossroads” program operated by Oak Ridge National Laboratory have completed their two-year fellowship that was extended a few months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. What did they expect? How was the experience? What’s next? This is one in a series of articles that provides those answers. Today’s spotlight is on Shane McMahon, Chief Executive Officer of Lux Semiconductors. His lightly edited responses follow. We would also note that Lux was recently awarded a $999,755 Small Business Innovation Research Phase II grant from the National Science Foundation to further advance its work.)

  • When you arrived nearly two years ago, how would you characterize the expectations that you had as far as the work that needed to be done during your Fellowship? At the onset of “Innovation Crossroads,” Lux set out to develop a flexible silicon material platform using its novel recrystallization process technology. The aim was to grow highly crystalline silicon thin films on flexible metal foil substrates, and then qualify the films by testing electronic devices made from them.
  • How “true” have you been to that path? Have you pivoted and, if so, how? Generally speaking, Lux has stayed true to its original course, focusing predominantly on the development of highly crystalline silicon thin films on flexible metal foil substrates. Since the program started, however, Lux has significantly expanded its scope pertaining to the fabrication of electronic devices. Whereas the initial project consisted only of thin film transistors and photosensors, it now includes the development of nearly all semiconductor fabrication processes, as well as many other fundamental electronic components. Effectuating this expansion required new technical partnerships to be formed with key academic research groups.
  • Now, as you prepare to move forward, how would you describe the progress that you have made and the position in which you find yourself and your start-up for the future? During “Innovation Crossroads,” Lux was able to make significant technical strides towards the development of highly crystalline thin film silicon in its custom-built prototype chamber. The company is now ready to transfer key process learnings made during this time for the development of silicon films on a larger, higher throughput pilot system. Beyond material development, Lux has successfully demonstrated the application of standard semiconductor fabrication processes on its silicon. This critical milestone means existing semiconductor foundries will be able to produce integrated circuits on Lux’s silicon substrates similar to how they are currently produced on silicon wafers. These technical developments have led to commercial traction as well, manifested in the form of a commercial purchase order from a large aerospace original equipment manufacturer, as well as support letters from major defense primes.
  • What are the next few milestones? One major technical milestone for Lux over the next few months will be the fabrication and testing of fundamental electronic components including transistors, diodes, capacitors and resistors, patterned directly into Lux’s thin film silicon. Performance characteristics of these devices will serve as a qualification of the silicon itself and dictate what level of integrated circuit complexity Lux’s silicon will be able to support. Another upcoming milestone will be to move beyond the current prototype system and onto the design, construction, installation, and commissioning of Lux’s larger and higher throughput pilot system.
  • Will you remain in the region or move elsewhere? Lux is currently assessing the feasibility of setting up its pilot operations in the region, with the intention of forming deeper collaborations with ORNL.
  • As Cohort 4 arrives at ORNL, what advice would you offer them as to gaining the most advantage they can during their two years with “Innovation Crossroads” and the team? To effectively leverage the facilities and expertise of the lab, Cohort 4 Innovators should identify an ORNL scientist who has a research focus that aligns strongly to that of their own. Identifying and establishing mutual expectations with this person at the onset will be key to avoiding costly and prolonged pitfalls that can arise during the navigation of a national lab. Innovators should also focus on performing customer discovery during the first few months of the program while the CRADA (Cooperative Research and Development Agreement) is being approved. Customer information should be used to inform technology development plans that are executed during the program.

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