Mohammad Farhan Shahriar, a student of the Department of Physics, was busy depositing zinc oxide thin films on a glass slide, using the Ultrasonic Spray Pyrolysis machine, at the Semiconductor Technology Research Centre's (STRC's) laboratory, at Dhaka University.
"I am working on spintronics and setting the parameters now. In spintronics, firstly, there will be a magnetic layer, then there will be a semiconductor layer, and then again a magnetic layer," he said, adding, "For the time being, I will work with all three layers."
Farhan said that his experiment may work as a gas sensor in a machine. He also said that in quantum computing, it may be used in data processing as well as data storage.
Located on the second floor of Curzon Hall, which also houses the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, the centre has its own laboratory and equipment for conducting research and experiments. It has almost been four decades since the centre was first set up.
In the mid-1980s, Professor Sultan Ahmed of the Department of Physics at Dhaka University went to Sweden to attend an International Science Programme.
The Swedish government used to provide funds to countries like Bangladesh so they could conduct further research in physics and chemistry. At the time, the Swedish government donated a machine called the Edward E306 — used for thin film deposition of semiconductors — to the university.
Centering around this machine, the university set up STRC in 1985.
Setting up an independent semiconductor research centre back then was undoubtedly a far-fetched initiative as the word semiconductor had yet to reach the buzzword status.
A semiconductor is usually composed of silicon, which conducts more electricity than an insulator, such as glass, but less than a pure conductor, such as copper or aluminium. Its conductivity and other properties can be altered with the introduction of impurities, called doping, to meet the specific needs of the electronic component in which it resides. Diodes, integrated circuits (IC) and transistors found in electronic devices are made from semiconductors.
At the time of opening the centre, the university authorities thought that semiconductors were essential and that one day, a semiconductor industry would develop in the country.
The first part proved right, the latter, not so much.
The university authorities set up a Department of Applied Physics to help the country's electronics sector flourish. To address the issues of research and collaboration alongside it, the university opened the STRC.
Until 2019, the research centre remained in poor shape due to a lack of funds.
What does the centre do?
STRC is now providing hands-on training to students, teaching them how to process materials and synthesise and characterise them.
"Characterisation means the determination of the materials' properties," said Dr Mujib Lennin Palash, current director of the centre.
He said that there are many researchers who work in the laboratory. Sometimes professors also come here and they also send their students to do research.
In Bangladesh, semiconductors are mostly used in the solar power sector. The PV panel is a semiconductor device.
"It is easy for us to conduct research on PV panels. Most of the applications of semiconductors in Bangladesh are in solar power," said Dr Palash, who is also an associate professor at the EEE department.
He said that solar panels absorb light and then create electron flow. The researchers at this centre also conduct studies and experiments on materials that will help increase the absorption of light, and which materials decrease the absorption.
Research on semiconductor devices has just started in Bangladesh, he said, adding some companies in Bangladesh are in the design phase of making them.
STRC is far from doing proper research on such devices. They are simply conducting research on materials to determine their semiconductor behaviour.
"Work on semiconductor devices is lagging behind because we do not have such facilities in our laboratory. To conduct such research, we need a clean room and some equipment for deposition," said Dr Palash, adding that the price of a piece of equipment ranges between Tk5 crore and Tk15 crore. "It is not possible [to buy them] with the university's funds."
He also said that they cannot provide all the aspects of fabricating or manufacturing a chip but they teach one or two techniques to their students.
However, the machines that have been brought over in the last two years can help students and researchers in conducting more research and hence bring out more publications. These will also help the university in gaining higher ranking among top universities in the world.
Several research papers on solar energy, optical materials, superlattices and microstructure, conducted by STRC, have been published in the Q1 journals in the world. Q1 journals are the top 25 most prestigious journals in the world.
Far from making our own device
The making of a semiconductor device includes eight stages: wafer manufacturing, oxidation, photolithography, etching, deposition and ion implantation, metal wiring, electrical dye sorting, and packaging.
"If we can make a complete mobile phone IC, then we will be able to work at full capacity," said Dr Palash. "We are not even in a situation to make a diode. We do not have the facility."
He said that at present, they cannot even make wafers, the first stage of making a semiconductor. They have some characterisation equipment, but they cannot do the characterisation of all materials with it.
"If we get Tk20 crore to Tk50 crore fund, then it would be possible to make semiconductor devices," Dr Palash said, adding that it will not be an issue for the government to provide such funds.
Former director of STRC Professor Ishtiaque Moyeen Syed said that consumer electronics company Walton Group has been importing chips from China. He believes we need to start with baby steps, like making a diode or transistor to gradually reach the capacity of making our own chips.
"Our ultimate goal is to manufacture semiconductor devices that we are currently bringing from abroad," he said, adding, "To make it happen, we need a huge investment, which we do not have now."
However, Dr Palash informed that there has been some success. As it is a university research centre, its main target is its students. It trains the students to build their capacity.
For example, if anyone wants to go abroad to get a PhD, they provide them with basic training. Moreover, they have some good publications in international journals.
"We want students to work in the laboratory and they are doing that," he said.
As there is little scope of working on semiconductors in the country, many students go abroad after graduation and find work in internationally renowned companies.
"From every batch of around 70 students, some 15 go abroad every year. Some of them are working with Intel and GlobalFoundries," said Dr Palash.
On the other hand, some professors who have worked with Intel and GlobalFoundries are now teaching in the EEE department.
Dhaka University has a total of 54 research centres. Of them, STRC and the Centre for Advanced Research in Sciences (CARS) are more active than the others.
Despite shortcomings, the semiconductor research centre has some positive outcomes. Over the last two years, 50 students have worked in the research centre and the equipment has been used 600 times.
The director said, "Students from different universities such as Buet, Jahangirnagar University, and Rajshahi University also come to the research centre."
Equipment, old and new
The research centre houses particle characterisation equipment such as the Nanoparticle Analyser Thin Film Thickness Measurement Unit, Four Point Probe, Ultrasonic Spray Pyrolysis Coating Unit, High-Temperature Muffle Furnace, Hydrothermal Autoclave, Electric Oven, Ultrasonic Bath, Electric Balance, Refrigerated High-Speed Centrifuge, and the UV/Vis Spectrophotometer. The price of these equipment is almost Tk50 lakh.
"Except for the Edward E306, these new machines were added to the centre over the last two years under my tenure," said Professor Syed.
He said that it is not true that the centre never received funds in the past. Sometimes, the centre authority could not utilise the fund properly.
"Professors are basically scientists and as a result, they do not have good command over procurement following rules and regulations. Moreover, there are bureaucratic tangles," said Professor Syed, who is currently spearheading CARS.
Dr Palash said that several new equipment are at the procurement stage. Moreover, STRC does not charge any money to the researchers for using any equipment.
He said that many times, students need to test samples at BCSIR (Bangladesh Council of Scientific and Industrial Research) or Atomic Energy Commission. It costs between Tk5,000 and Tk10,000. The centre provides money to students to test the samples.
"We try to use economical equipment. If we want to work on the semiconductor device, we will need a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) first. The price of an SEM is Tk2-3 crore.
A fund crisis
STRC gets funds of around Tk60 lakh every year. Dr Palash said that the current vice-chancellor realises the importance of this centre, and allocates the highest budget for it.
He said that the EEE department has many courses on semiconductors: semiconductor physics, VLSI design course, and fabrication course.
But the funds are not enough. To overcome the fund crisis, the director wants to develop an industry-academia relationship such as the one between Buet and Walton.
"In this case, the industry can come forward," said Dr Palash. "They will say what they want and we will provide them with manpower — our students."
Last year, Walton announced they were signing a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Buet. The company will set up a laboratory at the Buet for research and development of its electronics and technology products.
According to the agreement, Walton will provide everything required for the laboratory. On the other hand, Buet teachers and students will conduct the research and develop Walton products.
According to Palash, the EEE department has a full set-up of credential software for VLSI design. A total of 80 computers have the software, which was donated by a non-profit organisation. It set up the software for around Tk1 crore.
Future of the centre
Once the centre gets enough funds, firstly, they will develop the laboratory so that anyone can get access to it.
Secondly, they are trying to collaborate with different industries and trying to sign MoUs with different foreign semiconductor research centres.
"If we sign a MoU with India for example, Indian experts will come to us with their own funds and share knowledge on what needs to be done in research," said Palash. "At the same time, we will be able to send our students to India. We can also send samples for tests in their laboratory."