January 28, 2016 ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It seems the best way to produce next-generation “space wafers” is to not actually fly to space.
ACME Advanced Materials — an Albuquerque startup that planned to use suborbital flights to produce high-quality semiconductor wafers in microgravity — has opted instead to create its own microgravity environment with parabolic flights. Those flights use modified fixed-wing planes to create reduced gravity by flying sharply up and down.
The company may still eventually fly its wafers to space, but for now, it’s a lot cheaper to use reduced-gravity aircraft to produce the firm’s ‘S’-grade, or ‘space-grade’ wafers than the cost of rocketing them into suborbit, said ACME President and CEO Rich Glover.
“With suborbital flight you get a lot better microgravity, but it costs a whole lot more,” Glover said. “Parabolic flights are an order of magnitude less expensive, but the process is still good enough to result in superior processed material. As a business, we need to focus on that to maximize profit.”
ACME, which launched in 2013 and has received about $2 million in venture investment, uses the dead still of microgravity to smooth out defects in low-quality semiconductor wafers. The elimination of all gravitational pressure and interference allows the advanced materials that are used to make high-performance semiconductors, known as “wide bandgap” wafers, to be formed without the electrical defects that typically complicate production on Earth.
ACME plans to sell its “cured,” or “healed” wafers to companies at a lower price than prime wafers made on Earth.
The company has been flying defective wafers in batches of 100 into microgravity in specially prepared containers, with 99 percent of them coming back as defect-free, Glover said.
But ACME found it can achieve that same 99 percent cure rate with parabolic flights. Those flights achieve microgravity when the plane reaches its apex just before turning downward, like the weightless, floating feeling experienced on a roller coaster.
ACME has partnered with Sierra Industries — a flight operations and maintenance center in Uvalde, Texas — to pilot a Cessna aircraft for the company.
“Pilots at Sierra Industries have worked it out to give maximum time in microgravity with no jitters, shaking or vibrations,” Glover said. “They created an in-house app for flights that keeps track of all the forces and jitter on the craft during parabolic flight. We did 29 flights with them in 2015.”
ACME is now leasing the aircraft from Sierra but plans to buy the craft and contract Sierra to maintain and fly it when ACME moves into commercial production.
“It’s reliable, consistent and easy to ramp up,” Glover said. “We’re doing 100 wafers per flight now, but we can rapidly move to 300 per flight and then do multiple flights per day.”
The company will begin commercial production and sales by late 2016, after independent testing of its chips. Stanford and Stony Brook University in New York are now testing the wafers, and researchers say initial results are promising.
“We’ve conducted detailed preflight and post-flight analysis on these substrates and observe compelling modifications to the material structure,” said Debbie Senesky, head of Stanford’s EXtreme Environment Microsystems Lab. “The devices we’ve built on S-grade substrates also showed improved electrical performance when compared to devices built on traditional, unprocessed substrates.”
October 13, 2014 ACME Advanced Materials Inc. is moving the semiconductor manufacturing industry into space.
The Albuquerque startup, which launched last year, has created a breakthrough process to turn low-grade semiconductor wafers into top-performing material for power electronics by tapping the dead stillness of microgravity. The elimination of all gravitational pressure and interference allows the advanced materials that are used to make high-performance semiconductors, known as “wide bandgap” wafers, to be formed without the electrical defects that typically complicate production on earth.
“We take crappy wafers, the lowest grade we can buy, and use a microgravity environment to turn them into what the industry would call prime ‘A’-grade wafers,” said ACME President and CEO Rich Glover. “We call them ‘S’-grade, or ‘space-grade’ wafers. They’re better wafers than you can get on the market today, and at a better price.”
Since last spring, the company has been sending batches of low-grade wafers for conversion to high-grade on contract flights in Texas, although details of the suborbital launches remain confidential.
“We signed a three-year agreement with a flight partner,” Glover said. “We’ve flown monthly since April.
ACME’s process represents a double breakthrough. First, it’s turning next-gen silicon carbide wafers – which provide much greater capability for power electronics than standard silicon wafers – into top-quality wafers at lower cost than is available today. That alone is a major eye-catcher in the semiconductor industry, where public- and private-sector researchers are scrambling to find affordable ways to produce silicon carbide and gallium nitride wafers without defects to provide the electrical conductivity needed for everything from automobiles to consumer appliances and LEDs.
Apart from that achievement, ACME is also breaking new ground in the emerging space industry by launching a novel manufacturing process in microgravity.
“There is no production manufacturing at all yet in the space industry,” Glover said. “I believe this is a first.”
The company has attracted significant backing from local and international venture investors. Cottonwood Technology Fund in New Mexico and Pangea Ventures of Canada have made a seven-figure investment in ACME since last year.
“Large corporations are looking for how to get better-performing wide bandgap materials, but they’re generally only working to improve the process incrementally over time,” said Cottonwood managing partner David Blivin. “This company has largely leapfrogged all that. They’ve proven that their process works, representing a leap to optimal performance for these wafers rather than the incremental improvements under investigation today.”
The Pangea investment in ACME is particularly important. That firm specializes in chemistry and materials science. It bills itself as “the world leader” in advanced materials venture capital.
“This is quite extraordinary,” said Pangea general partner Chris Erickson. “ACME is doing what others didn’t even consider as a possibility, and they’re doing it in a way that is cost competitive with existing wafer producers and extremely profitable.”
Wide bandgap wafers are considered the wave of the future for power electronics because they can operate at higher temperatures than silicon, and they have greater durability and reliability at higher voltages and frequencies. That can immensely improve the performance and efficiency of electrically powered devices.
Given the promise of wide bandgap wafers, in January the U.S. Department of Energy announced a new, $140 million research partnership with 18 companies and seven universities to create a cost-effective process for making the wafers over the next five years.
The challenge is that silicon carbide and gallium nitride are naturally hard elements that are very difficult to grow without defects. Those defects, in turn, interfere with electrical flow on the wafers, causing power loss and reducing the reliability of the devices that use them.
“The defects are like potholes in a highway that slow everybody down because they have to go around,” Glover said. “Our process eliminates those defects so you can go straight ahead at full speed.”
Defects form in the wafers largely because of the pressure and interference when growing wide bandgap materials on the ground. The push and pull of gravity-related conditions keeps the atoms from settling to their lowest energy state on the wafer, Glover said. In contrast, ACME’s process involves varying the temperature, pressure and vacuum cycles in a microgravity environment free of all jitters, bumps and spikes.
“We remove all the forces and allow the atoms to relax into preferred low energy states, and that makes the electrical defects go away,” Glover said. “It smooths the wafer out.”
It’s like a Chinese checker board where the marbles are stuck in between the holes, Glover said. The microgravity environment allows the atoms to fall into the right places, like marbles falling into the holes on the board.
Rather than try to grow silicon carbide or gallium nitride wafers in space, ACME takes inexpensive, damaged wafers and sends them into microgravity to “heal” them. It prepares the wafers at a 2,000-square-foot office in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights. It then works with subcontractors in Texas to package the wafers into space-ready containers, followed by flight to suborbit.
The company says 99 percent of the wafers it sends up come back defect-free.
“In the last batch of 100 wafers, we had just one defective wafer come back,” Glover said. “All the rest were healed.”
Although ACME has only healed four-inch wafers so far, its process is fully scalable to larger wafers. That’s particularly valuable to the semiconductor industry, which wants quality wide bandgap wafers of up to 12 inches – the standard today for silicon wafers.
The process also works just as well with extra layers of materials applied on top of the base wafer. Manufacturers apply that layering process, known as “epitaxial layers,” or epi, to add capabilities. And, although to date the company has only flown silicon carbide wafers, it’s now working to adapt its process to include gallium nitride wafers.
“It’s hard to overstate the significance of this technology,” Blivin said. “Not only is ACME using a very unique approach to produce these wafers, but the process easily scales to larger diameter wafers. More importantly, their technology works with all wide bandgap materials, with or without epi.”
ACME expects to sell its services to companies that supply it with defective wafers for conversion to high-quality ones. Companies can buy defective wafers today for as little as $250, and ACME would charge $750 or less for each one it heals. That compares to up to $1,500 or more today for prime ‘A’-grade wafers.
The company says it’s capable of healing 250 four-inch wafers per month now. But it can rapidly scale up to 1,000 wafers monthly within 90 days, and up to 5,000 in six months. It expects to grow from five employees today to 20 in the next two years.
September 10, 2014 ALBUQUERQUE, NM (ACME PR) – ACME Advanced Materials, Inc. today announced the successful commercialization of its process to produce large quantities of low loss, electrically defect free (EDF) Silicon Carbide (SiC) wafers in a microgravity environment.
This development creates a new grade of SiC wafer, S Grade, that are electrically defect free of the mid-gap states known to cause power loss and reliability issues in SiC devices by impeding current flow through these electrical scattering centers.
The vastly improved electrical wafer characteristics means that device makers can expect superior performance from their Schottky Diodes, MOSFETs, and other high power switching technology enabled by these S Grade wafers. This technology is also expected to lead the way towards fabrication of very large scale devices such as microprocessors and ASICs on SiC.
“We’re very excited about these results on the most recent batch of 100 SiC wafers,” said ACME’s President Rich Glover, “it validates that our process works and more importantly, it demonstrates that we can produce these wafers consistently in commercially viable quantities.” Mr. Glover added, “We’re looking forward to working closely with industry over the next few months to build and test devices using our S Grade substrates.
Mr. Glover continued “Right now the emphasis and push for commercial space is focused on launch vehicles, that’s where the money is. While it is important that access to space continues to evolve and improve, the real bonanza will come from the materials and products that are manufacturable in microgravity with superior performance characteristics.”
“It’s hard to overstate the significance of this technology. Not only is ACME using a very unique approach to produce these wafers but the technology easily scales to larger diameter wafers – 6 and 8 inch wafers are just around the corner,” said David Blivin, Managing Partner of Cottonwood Technology Funds. “More importantly, their technology works with all WBG materials, with or without epi.”
According to Chris Erickson, General Partner, Pangaea Ventures, “This is quite extraordinary, ACME is doing what others didn’t even consider as a possibility and they are doing it in a way that is cost competitive with existing wafer producers and extremely profitable.”
About ACME Advanced Materials, Inc.
ACME Advanced Materials, Inc. (A2M) was formed to exploit breakthrough technology that was developed and demonstrated by Masterson Industries, LLC. The Masterson merger with A2M was completed on January 27, 2014 and A2M is the sole surviving entity. A2M is the parent company to a family of wholly owned subsidiaries with each subsidiary established to further develop and commercialize unique A2M technologies. A2M is a privately owned corporation supported by funding from both US and International venture groups.
About Cottonwood Technology Fund
Cottonwood Technology Fund is a seed and early-stage technology commercialization fund with offices in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, New Mexico and Enschede, Netherlands. It investments in technology-related (particularly chemistry/material sciences, photonics, biosciences and new energy related) businesses originating throughout the Southwest region generally bordered by Phoenix, Denver and Austin and including the Paso Del Norte region, running from Los Alamos, New Mexico to El Paso, Texas and Northern Europe. This region includes three national laboratories, over a dozen major research universities and several major research medical centers. Other current investments include Skorpios, FibeRio, xF Technologies (formerly Incitor), Respira, Trilumina and Exagen.
About Pangaea Ventures
Pangaea is the world leader in advanced materials venture capital. They invest in start-up companies with disruptive breakthrough innovation in chemistry and material science. Pangaea believes that breakthroughs in advanced materials are becoming increasingly important for companies to excel in almost any market. Advanced materials are solving fundamental problems necessary to make products more efficient and less expensive, two of the key attributes necessary for widespread adoption of any product. Pangaea has a strong preference for capital efficient businesses. Our investment thesis is technology- and IP-driven.