How he’d describe his job to a 10-year-old: “My team and I work with physics and chemistry to invent very cool technologies for making very cool products that change the world and that people would want to buy.”
Working on tomorrow’s problems: Chau directs Intel’s Components Research team of 105 engineers. They invent and develop novel materials, devices, interconnects and packaging used in Intel microprocessors, system-on-chip and 5G devices. They look for new tactics – some of them won’t be used for 5 to 10 years – to improve transistor and system performance and overcome the problems of physics that arise as chips’ features shrink to the atomic scale. “Our job is to invent, to demonstrate and to develop game-changing and revolutionary processing and packaging technologies to enable Intel’s process technology and product leadership,” says Chau, a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering and the recipient of the 2015 Intel Inventor of the Year award.
The starting point for revolutionary tech: Intel’s Components Research engineers have filed more than 1,600 patents in the last five years. Their work has been the foundation for many industry-first technologies, including high-k metal gate technology, Tri-gate 3D transistors, strained silicon, EMIB package technology and extreme ultraviolet lithography technology. “We need to make sure Intel’s R&D pipeline is always full,” says Chau, a 31-year Intel employee with 440 granted patents.
Where silicon research starts: Chau’s Components Research team has strong internal collaboration with the Intel business units, Intel Labs, Logic Technology Development and Assembly Test Technology Development. Outside of Intel, the team has strong external collaboration with suppliers and universities. “Silicon research and development starts with us,” he says, “then goes to the technology development teams in Oregon and Arizona for chips and packaging, respectively, then to high-volume manufacturing in our global factories.”
The keeper of Moore’s Law: “Our job is to make sure Moore’s Law is alive and well. It’s a law of economics but it takes physics, chemistry, new materials and new architecture to keep it going. It can evolve into different forms over time, but we want to make sure we have the innovations and technologies to keep it going.”
Where Moore’s Law goes next: “Moore’s Law is more alive than ever, in my opinion, because now we’re thinking about heterogeneous 3D integration, both monolithically and at the package and system level – how to stack and put more devices in a vertical manner up and down.” Chau describes recent trips to Singapore and Hong Kong – large cities with small geographic footprints. “They are not spreading out,” he says, “they are building taller vertical skyscrapers and deeper and bigger underground shopping malls. That’s essentially what we are doing on our chips to accommodate the increasing number of transistors.”
Passion drives invention: “We don’t just sit here and say, ‘Hey, I invent.’ Invention is about human spirit and passion,” Chau says. “So, to be inventive, you have to be really passionate about what you’re doing. Invention is not routine, it’s not mundane. Inventions come from passion.”