Idea pays off for UI, prof with deal with Samsung

URBANA – Joseph Lyding says he's "pleased and a little surprised" that the semiconductor technology he helped develop 14 years ago has finally been licensed.

The University of Illinois announced Tuesday that Samsung Electronics has been licensed to use the patented technology that can extend the life – or improve the performance – of silicon chips.

The technology involves the use of deuterium, a nonradioactive isotope of hydrogen, in processing the chips.

The UI hopes other electronics companies follow Samsung's lead and sign similar licenses. If so, the university could enjoy a substantial revenue stream.

"The potential is in the millions, from all the potential licensees," said Mark Kaczor, senior technology manager for the UI's Office of Technology Management.

The license sprang from the work of Lyding, a professor of electrical and computer engineering; Karl Hess, a professor emeritus now living in Hawaii; and Jinju Lee, a postdoctoral researcher now working for Intel Corp.

In the early 1990s, Lyding did fundamental research on the differences of hydrogen and deuterium on silicon surfaces. Later, he and his colleagues sought to find out how those findings might affect silicon-chip technology.

Hydrogen had conventionally been used in the processing of silicon chips. But hydrogen tends to get knocked off silicon surfaces during an electrical charge, decreasing the chip's performance.

Lyding and Hess tried substituting deuterium, an isotope that's heavier than hydrogen. They found it stayed bonded and improved the lifetime of chips by a factor of 10 to 50.

Lyding said there was "a flurry of activity" in 1996 and 1997, after those findings came out. Several companies published papers confirming the results, and other researchers got patents that built on their discoveries.

Then things "got quiet" as companies did internal development.

Kaczor said it's not surprising it took a while for Samsung, the second-largest electronics company in the world behind Intel, to sign a license.

"A lot of our technologies are very cutting-edge, and it takes industry a while to catch up," he said. "That was true of deuterium, which was hailed at the time as revolutionary."

As electronic devices get smaller, the use of deuterium has become more necessary, Kaczor said.

It wasn't needed as much when devices became obsolete quickly, he said. But as longevity becomes more important, companies give more attention to the use of deuterium in processing chips.

According to Kaczor, Hess believes the technology will be most useful in cell phones, where microprocessors run many functions – including video displays, audio applications and the circuits that dial telephone numbers.

Lesley Millar, director of the UI's Office of Technology Management, called Samsung "the first domino to fall."

The use of deuterium in processing chips is "a widely known technology that's been around a while," she said. "Because we have a strong patent portfolio, we have high hopes ... that other companies would like to license the technology."

Millar said the electronics market is huge, and deuterium technology represents only a small part of that.

"But when you talk about billion-dollar markets, there's potential for millions of dollars of revenue," she said.

The university owns five U.S. patents and one South Korean patent covering the use of deuterium in semiconductor devices. Under the license, Samsung can use the technology for the lifetime of the patents.

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