October 27, 2022

The university's Core Research Facilities offer state-of-the-art equipment available for public use

Stanislau Herasimenka had a goal that was literally aiming for the stars.

His startup company, Solestial, aimed to build solar cells and panels for satellites, powering the global broadband satellite internet, cellphone towers in space and human colonies on Mars.  

A partnership with Arizona State University was essential to his plan.

Herasimenka collaborated with ASU Core Research Facilities, which provided access to specialized equipment within the university’s solar fab. This allowed Solestial to mass produce products at an affordable price. 

“We would have been required to spend tens of millions of dollars for the equipment needed to develop our line of products,” said Herasimenka, CEO of Solestial. “The fact is that this is a unique facility with unique equipment. It is the only one of its kind in the country.”

Core Facilities comprises hundreds of thousands of square feet of state-of-the-art facilities throughout the university for nanofabrication, mass spectrometry, research computing and more — anything an academic researcher might need. But these Core Facilities assets aren’t just for faculty use. 

These facilities — and the subject matter expertise to go with them — are available for businesses and industry leaders who need to conduct high-level research for their endeavors.

That kind of industry research is a key component of such large-scale objectives as the New Economy Initiative — a partnership between the state and its three universities to increase Arizona’s competitiveness in high-tech sectors on the national and global stage, and to create high-wage employment opportunities and economic growth for the state.

“We are witnessing a rapidly changing economic landscape,” said Sally C. Morton, executive vice president of ASU Knowledge Enterprise, home of ASU Core Research Facilities.

“Together, ASU and its industry partners have an opportunity to create jobs and influence a positive economic trajectory. By connecting education and innovation with market demands, we’re developing a skilled workforce that’s prepared for a new economy. ASU’s state-of-the-art Core Facilities are crucial to this mission.” 

The core basics

In addition to creating collaborations with a top research university, industry partners gain access to tools, technology and expertise at a fraction of the cost of owning and maintaining their own equipment and facilities.

“Companies don't have to purchase, install and maintain capital equipment that they might need in order to do prototyping,” said Zachary Holman, an associate professor in ASU’s School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering. “Because the university does that. 

“They don't have to hire and train staff members who embody the knowledge to run that equipment, because the university does that too.

“We lower the bar in terms of time and money. And help them reach their goals.” 

Core Facilities — located in Tempe, Phoenix, Mesa and Chandler — house around 300 pieces of major equipment and instrumentation valued at more than $100 million

Businesses have the option to send employees to a core facility for training on the specialized machines, and corporations can move among different resources in different facilities in a way that is not common in universities.  

“I do think that ASU is unique in how integrated they are,” added Holman, who also serves as the director of faculty entrepreneurship at ASU.

The facilities are organized into the following clusters:

  • Biosciences.
  • Computing and data services.
  • Health and clinical research services.
  • Instrument design and fabrication.
  • Materials characterization and synthesis.
  • Nanofabrications.   

It’s all part of an effort to boost research innovation both within ASU and in the broader community.  

Centralizing to better scale

In the 1970s, ASU was home to just one core facility and was far from leading the nation as a major research institution. Today, the university ranks No. 6 in the nation for research expenditures for institutions without a medical school, with more than $673 million.

“ASU research exploded over the last 30 years that I’ve been with the university,” said Tom Colella, executive director of Core Facilities. 

With that growth came the need for a more centralized approach to research infrastructure.  

“So instead of having five similar mid-level microscopes spread throughout the university in individual investigator labs, we can place the most state-of-the-art electron microscopes on campus and share via the Core Facility model, giving access to the broad research community,” Colella said.

Bonus benefits

The equipment being offered through Core Facilities is continually being upgraded, a benefit to academic researchers and industry partners alike. New equipment with the most up-to-date technology is planned at multiple facility sites over the next couple of months. 

“It is the same kind of equipment being used in places such as Intel and TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company),” said Michael Marrs, deputy director and lead scientist for the Advanced Electronics and Photonics facility. “This will allow us to perform the same kind of processes that are going on in major fabrication houses in the Valley.”

Core Facilities are also capable of providing businesses with a quick turnaround on their requests — often getting started on projects a week or even a day later.

“This is especially helpful for startups that need to launch their products right away,” Marrs said. “Since we have the infrastructure, they can quickly start working on their special device here. This is a great incubator.” 

In a competitive market, Marrs added, a core collaboration offers confidentiality, creating mutual trust within the partnership.

In 2022, Core Facilities helped 110 large companies and small startups reach their goals by providing a range of services, including one-stop access, project development, training and workforce development.

ASU also has partnered with the Arizona Commerce Authority to provide startups with the Arizona Advanced Manufacturing Facilities Grant. New businesses that need semiconductor fabrication equipment can receive up to $50,000 when using any of ASU’s Core Facilities.  

A successful partnership

Atomera has worked with ASU since 2020. The materials engineering company is focused on the semiconductor industry, developing technology and processes to improve electronics.

The business uses the clean room in ASU’s MacroTechnology Works facility to perform the necessary research and development of new materials for semiconductors.

Atomera searched for several years to find a facility where it could run tests on 300-millimeter wafers, used for advanced processes in the industry. 

“Access to MacroTechnology Works enables us to do research on the most advanced technologies and to do our work on equipment that mirrors what our customers are using,” said Doran Weeks, the company’s principal engineer.

“This is critical for a small company like Atomera to build our credibility.”

ASU also benefits from these arrangements, securing revenue for the university as well as providing opportunities for ASU students and faculty to make important connections with a wide range of companies. 

“By having industry engaged with us, we provide an opportunity for students who are using the research facilities to interact with industry leaders — a benefit for both,” Colella said. “This way, we help create a talent pipeline. It’s fantastic.”

Learn more, including how to schedule a site tour or consultation, at cores.research.asu.edu.

Top photo: A docotral student prints a solar cell with the letters "ASU" on it in the Holman Research Group lab. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASUNews

Reporter , ASU News