Utica On Cusp Of Nano Boom

Dec 20, 2013

The Quad C construction site on the SUNY IT campus in November.
Credit Dave Chanatry

In the Utica area, there’s been a lot of buzz lately about nanotechnology, and the possibility that a major nanotech manufacturing facility will soon locate  there. But what exactly is “Nano-Utica,” as it’s being called?

On a chilly November morning, contractors are giving public tours of a construction site at the SUNY Institute of Technology in Utica. But it’s not a classroom building or new dorm they’re walking around.  The public is getting a sneak peak at something known here as Quad C…the Computer Chip Commercialization Center.

Fifty-six thousand square feet of cleanrooms.  A high tech lab for R&D in nano-electronics. It’s not some fantasy of the future…steel is going up, cement is being poured, and people like Sue Alberico are excited.

"This is a dream of a revival of an area. I’ve watched businesses come and go and I’ve seen too many go," she says. "This is going to be my children’s future."

Quad C is being built in partnership with the SUNY College of Nano-scale Science and Engineering in Albany. In October, six big tech companies announced they would invest one and a half BILLION dollars to make the facility a hub of nanotech development.

SUNY IT president Robert Geer says this public-private partnership can make New York a leader as the world moves to a wireless economy.

"This facility will allow people to do research that really they can do in just a few places in the world," he says.

Research into the next generation of the chips essential to modern electronics.

"The quad C is going to be focusing on those technologies a lot of which are called packaging technologies and they’re becoming very complex. Literally thinning and stacking chips so you can combine all these functionalities."

The research facility is expected to create more than a thousand high tech jobs.  That’s big news in a rust belt region like Utica. But the bigger news COULD be what comes next, because here’s the thing about those chips:

They’re really tiny transistors... made on silicon wafers 300 millimeters in diameter...about the size of a medium pizza. And that’s not big enough anymore.  Geer says the industry will soon move to wafers 450 millimeters across.

"Everyone is used to their computer, their phone, their tablet being more powerful next year and to do that you need to put more transistors on a chip. To be able to do that is incredibly expensive so you’d rather make  more at once. The larger the wafer, the more you can make at once. It’s a simple economy of scale."

Just a quarter mile from Quad C is a 420 acre site that state and local officials hope will soon become a world center for manufacturing those larger chips. They’ve spent more than 50 million dollars building roads and water systems, electrical work is underway, and now some of the same players that made Quad C a reality, are partnering again.

"We would like Marcy to be the first 450 millimeter high volume manufacturing plant in the world," says Mark Reynolds, senior V-P at Mohawk Valley Edge, the economic development agency behind the effort. He says a key to realizing this high tech future is the State’s commitment to putting up the bricks and mortar.

"The company doesn’t to put the billions of dollars on the table to build the plant, they just have to bring the people and the tools."

The site is big enough for three chip fabrication plants, eachrepresenting as much as $13 billions in private investment.  Reynolds says each could lead to as many as nine thousand jobs in the area.

While this all seems hard to believe in a region that’s taken its economic lumps, insiders say the industry just needs to be sure the larger wafers can be produced cost effectively. Peter Singer is the Editor in Chief of Solid State Technology Magazine.

"In my opinion it’s a big experiment with the results left to be proven. But when you have companies like Intell, Samsung, and TSMC behind it they can most definitely make something like that happen," he says.

For more on the New York Reporting Project, visit  www.nyrp-uc.org.