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October 2, 2023

Current processes for manufacturing solar cells and power electronics have a manufacturing waste problem: up to 95% of the initial block of material, called a wafer or substrate, is destroyed when the wafers are extracted from the substrate and then thinned. These semiconductor manufacturing processes are called wire sawing And backgrinding.

Mariana Bertoniprofessor of electrical engineering at Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, and his former doctoral student Pablo Guimerá Coll sought to reduce waste from wafer manufacturing. They developed a precise method to apply a crack to the semiconductor substrate material with a small force, then use sound waves to precisely guide the crack to cut only the necessary amount.
A wafer of semiconductor material sits on a table in a laboratory.
A wafer of semiconductor material is displayed in the laboratory of Professor Mariana Bertoni at Arizona State University. His company, Crystal Sonic, received phase II funding from NASA’s SBIR Ignite 2022 program to advance its Sonic Lift-off manufacturing technology, which uses sound waves to cut semiconductor wafers for devices electronic. Photo courtesy of Mariana Bertoni/ASU
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The resulting clean, precise cuts allow the substrate material to be used multiple times and completely eliminate the need for back grinding, reducing waste in the manufacturing process.

“I have always been fascinated by the process of crumbling, even in nature, and the role of vibrations in breaking objects,” says Bertoni.

This fascination with vibration and crumbling, a process by which a piece of material is separated from a larger piece, gave rise to Bertoni and Coll’s manufacturing method, which they dubbed “Sonic Lift-off “. After Sonic Lift-off showed promise, Bertoni and Coll founded Sonic Crystal in 2018 to further develop and commercialize their research.

Bertoni is now the company’s chief technology officer, while Coll has since earned his doctorate in materials science and engineering and is now Crystal Sonic’s director of research and development.

Crystal Sonic continued to gain prominence for its ideas: the company won one of 12 national funding awards of $850,000 from NASA. Innovation Research and Technology Transfer Program for Small Businessesknown as SBIR and STTR respectively, via SBIR ignite Phase II of Sonic Lift-off, for which the agency sees potential use to make solar cells that can be used in space. ASU spin-off company Solestiala company specializing in solar technology for use in space, started by ASU electrical engineering alumnus and former research assistant professor Stanislau “Stan” Herasimenka, won another of 12 funding spots.

SBIR and STTR Programs are offered by all U.S. federal agencies to encourage the development of technologies from small U.S. businesses for use in commercial and government settings. The SBIR Ignite program, launching in 2022 and specific to NASA projects, aims to help small businesses by distributing funds on an accelerated schedule compared to the longer traditional SBIR and STTR processes, allowing companies to continue their research with a minimal disruption and further develop their technology. quickly.

Crystal Sonic was an early participant in the program and began involvement in SBIR Ignite with a Phase I award, which investigated the feasibility of Sonic Lift-off on large wafers.

Good vibes

Sonic Lift-off uses a precise application of force to create a crack in the semiconductor substrate material. Once the substrate is cracked, sound waves guide the crack further into the substrate to create a clean cut through the material, producing a thin semiconductor device used in the manufacturing of solar cells or power electronic chips.

The technique’s use of sound waves to guide the crack results in a smooth finish, unlike the product from wire sawing, which is rough and requires another step of back grinding to smooth it to a level usable for consumer devices.

Arno Merkle, CEO of Crystal Sonic, explains that Sonic Lift-off reduces substrate waste by allowing blocks of substrate that are typically used only once to be reused one or more additional times. He says the main application of the method is in compound semiconductor materials such as gallium arsenide, gallium nitride and silicon carbide.

These materials are commonly used for power electronics applications, such as certain types of solar panels and chips that convert electricity and regulate its flow in power grid components and in electric vehicle transmissions and chargers.

“These types of chips are usually not the computer chips you think of, like the processor in your computer or phone,” Merkle says. “But they are used for other applications like sensors, so even the 3D sensors on your iPhone that measure facial recognition and other sensors to measure light or distance are examples of that.”

Due to the difficulty of producing high-quality compound semiconductor materials and the large amount of waste resulting from chip production, devices that use them are expensive to produce. Sonic Lift-off’s waste reduction could cut by at least half the highest cost of compound semiconductor chips, which face growing demand.

Flight into the future

Although Sonic Lift-off has been proven to successfully cut a bare wafer measuring four inches, the technology has not yet been tested on devices of such size. Crystal Sonic’s SBIR Ignite Phase II grant will allow the company to build a second-generation version of the Sonic Lift-off tool and work with space solar technology manufacturers to determine whether the method can be used in production of four-inch assistive devices.

Merkle says that in the future, Crystal Sonic hopes to process wafers for devices with even larger diameters.

“For things like silicon chips, it’s currently 12-inch wafers,” he says. “One of the technical questions we ask ourselves is: ‘Can we demonstrate this on larger and larger diameter wafers?’ »

Moving forward, Crystal Sonic aims to advance to Phase III of SBIR Ignite, which will see the continued commercialization of Sonic Lift-off. Merkle says the company plans to begin commercialization in the space solar technology sector with possible future market expansion to solar manufacturers. wide bandgap semiconductor devices.

With the company’s success and growth as development progresses on Sonic Lift-off, Crystal Sonic has moved from rented space at Bertoni’s lab on ASU’s Tempe campus to Connect laboratories in downtown Phoenix, located in a building created through collaboration between ASU, development company Wexford and the city of Phoenix.

“We left the ASU campus earlier this summer,” Merkle says. “We have passed this deadline and are hiring two new people to the team. We’re excited to be here in the community of some of the Valley of the Sun’s emerging startups.

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