Microelectronics and Nanotechnology Pathway
As the transistors that make up the bulk of our electronic systems continue to shrink, traditional ways of controlling digital circuits and systems are becoming inadequate. Designing these digital circuits for transistors today (and tomorrow) requires a deeper understanding of how transistors operate at nanoscale dimensions. Classical mechanics knocks on the door of quantum mechanics when transistors shrink to microscopic sizes, and the abstract notion of a single electron controlling the behavior of a simple analog circuit is no longer a far-fetched idea. Emerging quantum technologies are already using semiconductors to build qubits and control electronics. And the integration of silicon and optical active semiconductors is an important, concurrent advance, leading to enhanced optoelectronic devices for sensing, navigation and computing.
Students following the Microelectronics and Nanotechnology pathway can look forward to becoming part of an exciting global effort to develop the next generation of nanoscale transistors and digital circuits, which will serve as the foundation for faster, cheaper and higher-performance computing and electronics. This pathway teaches students how to build today’s circuits and code today’s microcontrollers while also providing a vision for how tomorrow’s circuits and devices are going to work.
This pathway is a good fit for students who are interested in:
- Emerging technologies
- Electronic devices
- MEMS — microelectromechanical devices
- Semiconductor technology
Does a student need a graduate degree specializing in this area to be marketable to industry?
No. Students can find a good job with a bachelor’s degree, and this trend is expected to increase because semiconductor manufacturing is making a move back to the United States. The U.S. government has allocated more than $20B to support growth in semiconductor jobs, and graduates with a focus in microelectronics and nanotechnology will find great prospects for jobs overseas as well.
How can a knowledge of microelectronics and nanotechnology be applied in the real world?
Skills in developing microelectronics and nanotechnology are widely applicable in the real world, for example:
- Anything with an electronics component uses, or will soon use, microelectronics and nanotechnology — from a cellphone to medical equipment to aircraft for space missions.
- Electronic skin, which is an emerging area of technology development
Do microelectronics and nanotechnology touch on global impact, equity and/or quality of life?
Yes. It would be difficult to find any part of society today that is not touched, supported or assisted by electronic devices. Integrated circuits, smartphones, rockets, telescopes, refrigerators and other home appliances, computers, tablets, televisions, video games, augmented and virtual reality, missiles, blood pressure monitors and other home medical devices — the list is endless. While often invisible to the everyday user, electronic devices are integral to addressing today’s most pressing global challenges — from climate change to vaccines to transportation and many other areas.
Areas of Impact
Air and Space
Metal-oxide-semiconductor and charge-coupled devices are central to camera applications for space exploration. The Mars rovers have used semiconductor-based devices for sensing and imaging light, the first digital movie was based on the use of semiconductor devices, and this trend has continued.
Computing Data and Digital Technologies
These technologies would not exist without those scientists and engineers who deeply understood the underlying physics of operation associated with diodes, transistors and other semiconductor devices. And now in the 21st century, similar minds and expertise will be needed, particularly in engineering, to bring novel ways of making transistors from the research laboratory into practice.
Environmental Sustainability and Energy
New semiconductor technologies offer the possibility of consuming far less power than traditional devices and thereby curbing the impact of our ever-increasing hunger for electronic devices and appliances. As important, exposing many of our semiconductor and related devices to light produces energy — enough to make semiconductor photovoltaics the global leader in solar energy technologies. However, a wide range of challenges remain to be overcome to improve the efficiency and viability of these devices for residential and commercial customers, as well as on-grid and off-grid users. Semiconductor technologies are prevalent in renewable energy systems today. For example, the energy-efficient light bulbs you use at home are based on light-emitting semiconductor diodes, and the green solar cells on rooftops are also based on diodes.
Health and Medicine
Microelectronics and nanotechnology are an integral component of many medical devices used in hospitals and doctors’ offices today. Portable ultrasound machines to detect lung and organ damage use semiconductor chips, which have improved device performance and reduced cost. The ventilator systems used to assist patients with breathing contain semiconductor sensors and processors to monitor vital signals. These microelectronics help to determine the rate, volume and amount of oxygen per breath, so the device can accurately adjust oxygen levels according to the needs of the patient.
Infrastructure, Transportation, and Society
An electric car does not simply run on batteries, but it requires a wide variety of semiconductor devices to manage the transfer of charge from the grid to the car, and from the car to the road. Materials and devices to meet the increasing demand of electric vehicle companies who are interested in cameras/lidars is also on the increase.
Robotics and Manufacturing
The vision system in robots is based on microelectronic devices such as light-emitting diodes, lidars, etc. Low-power semiconductor devices are also important to building light-weight robots.
Related Career Paths
Students graduating with a focus in microelectronics and nanotechnology will be prepared for many different types of jobs, such as:
- Design engineer
- Test engineer
- Quality control engineer
- Business analyst
Microelectronics and Nanotechnology Courses
These courses are suggested for those following the Sustainable Energy Systems pathway but are not required to complete the BSECE degree program:
EE 331 — Devices and Circuits I
When you first learned about NAND, inverter, OR and other logic gates, did you ever wonder how they worked? How does the flow of electrons become a ‘0’ or a ‘1’ in the vast numbers of logic gates that make up today’s microcontrollers, microprocessors and other integrated circuits? And, how are the electrons so reliable in producing those zeroes and ones? This course jumps right into the fascinating, inner world of logic gates. We’ll explore together the basic operation of a transistor ‘switch’ to the efficient design of fast and reliable complex logic.
EE 421 — Quantum Mechanics for Engineers
Think Quantum! The focus of this course is to introduce students to quantum mechanics using 1D, 2D and 3D nanomaterials and quantum computing. Students will develop a working knowledge of qubits, quantization in quantum dots/wells/wires and band structure. Applications will focus on qubits, nanodevices, nanomaterials and the basics of quantum information. In this course, students will get to use Qiskit, IBM’s software on quantum computing/information.
EE 482 — Semiconductor Devices
Learn the basics of silicon and devices made from it that form the backbone of the trillion-dollar semiconductor industry. We will start from basic quantum mechanics and quickly get to the band structure, conduction and valence bands of silicon. You will learn what a negative effective mass stands for. The bulk of this course will focus on the device physics of semiconductor devices such as diodes, MOSFETs and more.
EE 484 — Sensors and Sensor Systems
Imagine a world with very fast, reliable and power-efficient electronics but with no way for those electronics to ‘talk’ to the outside world. A world without sensors is a world where electronics have minimal impact both on the quality of everyday life and on pressing global challenges. Sensors convert light, chemicals, viruses, bacteria, force, acceleration, temperature and more into electronic signals so that information from the external world can enter the internal signal processing, computing and other high-performance tasks that contemporary electronics can accomplish.
While there is no area-specific capstone for the Microelectronics and Nanotechnology pathway, industry-sponsored capstone projects that require semiconductor expertise can be completed through the ENGINE capstone course sequence (see description below), or alternatively, pursued in the labs of individual faculty conducting research in microelectronics and nanotechnology applications. Consult with UW ECE Advising for more information.
EE 497 (winter quarter) and EE 498 (spring quarter) — Engineering Entrepreneurial Capstone (ENGINE)
The Engineering Entrepreneurial Capstone program (ENGINE) is the culmination of a student’s electrical and computer engineering education at UW ECE. The program provides a unique opportunity for students to develop skills in collaborative systems engineering, project management, and most importantly, working in teams on real-world problems from industry-sponsored projects. The program is overseen by UW ECE faculty and students are guided by practicing engineers. The course culminates in a showcase of student projects, which is attended by industry sponsors and held at the end of spring quarter every year.
Students studying Microelectronics and Nanotechnology should also consider the following pathways:
Enriching Your Path
The following courses are also recommended for those following the Microelectronics and Nanotechnology pathway:
- EE 473 — Linear Integrated Circuits
- EE 476 — Digital Integrated Circuit Design
- EE 477 — VLSE II