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Bell Labs drops IC research biz

Posted: 02 Sep 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:nanotechnology? chip research? semiconductor? R&D?

Bell Labs has confirmed Aug. 29 that it is exiting the semiconductor researcher business.

Researchers at Bell Labs, now part of Alcatel-Lucent, have received six Nobel Prizes in physics. For the last six years, since Bell Labs spun off its semiconductor business, its material sciences and device physics research group has been in decline. The only remnant left is a small group studying quantum computation, high-speed electronics and nanotechnology.

"It is true that Bell Labs Research has gotten out of material science research and device physics research because we are no longer in the semiconductor business, but fundamental research is still alive and well and going on throughout Bell Labs," said Gee Rittenhouse, VP and head of research at Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs.

"We also closed our CMOS fab at Murray Hill, keeping only the very high-performance fabrication equipment that we now use for gallium arsenide, custom and optical components," Rittenhouse said.

Bell Labs Research currently employs about 1,000 researchers worldwide with an R&D budget of just under $2 billion. Most of the work performed at its New Jersey headquarters. The rest is scattered around the world in R&D centers in Paris, Germany, Ireland, India and China.

"If you look at Bell Labs historicallygoing back to the late 1940s when semiconductor research got its starta lot of that research was driven by Bell Labs," said Lance Wilson, research director at ABI Research. "But today semiconductor research is spread out across the world in both the university landscape and in corporate research, so it's much more diffused and diversified today. Nobody has [a] corner on semiconductor research anymore. There is no single entity that if it went out of existence today which would impact semiconductor research one iota."

Rittenhouse said Bell Labs continues to do "fundamental research in wireless, networking, optics, computer science and still even in physics, but there we are focusing on quantum computation, high-speed electronics and nanotechnology with a group that is larger than the four I've seen reported in the media.

"Admittedly, it is a much smaller group than before when we were doing silicon device research," added Rittenhouse. "We continue to have physical technologies research group and a physical sciences research group. In the past, they were divided into fundamental, materials science and device physics, but now they are focused on quantum computation, high-speed electronics and nanotechnology."

Bell Labs was once one of the shining stars of basic research in physics and even astronomy. Today, parent company Alcatel-Lucent has mandated that research be distributed among its cores businesses. Bell Labs is now organized into eight groups: physical technologies, computing technologies, optics, fixed access, wireless access, networking, service infrastructure and applications.

"We still sponsor undirected research, but not as much as before. For instance, we don't do the astronomy work that we used to do. But now we focus our researchers in areas where we know they can be successful," said Rittenhouse.

"From our point of view, that was really always the casewe didn't study cosmic background radiation because we thought it was interesting physics, we studied it to improve satellite communications. It turned out we also solved an interesting physics problem, but that was not our intent."

Continuing mission
Bell Labs most famous semiconductor breakthrough was the development of the transistor. In 1945, the Labs formed its Solid State Physics Group led by physicist William Shockley, whose mission was to develop an alternative to vacuum tube amplifiers. That group developed the theoretical work of physicist Julius Edgar Lilienfeld, who filed the original patent on the transistor in 1925, but never developed the idea. Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Houser Brattain are generally credited with the transistors invention, and were awarded the 1956 Nobel Prize for their pioneering work.

"Today our mission is not that different from what it was before: We have always done and still do research that is scientifically important, but which is also relevant to the area of computation and communications" said Rittenhouse. "Even for transistors, we didn't study them out of curiosity. We studied them because you can't make good telecom switches out of vacuum tubes."

Nevertheless, Bell Labs abandonment of basic research in IC materials and devices leaves the United States with one less semiconductor R&D center at a time when the pace on innovation is quickening and CMOS fabrication moves to advanced nodes beyond 45 nanometers. IBM Research is considered the leading fundamental semiconductor research facility left in the United States. But Rittenhouse argued that it no longer makes sense for Bell Labs to compete with IBM in semiconductor research.

"When Lucent had a semiconductor business that was coupled into selling communications chips, it was perfectly reasonable to have a semiconductor research group that focused on materials and devices," said Rittenhouse. "Even after the spinoff to Agere [Systems Inc., which merged with LSI Corp. last year], we kept the group going for six years just because it was doing very good physics and gave us another way of looking at communications problems. But now we have decided to move on, close that facility, and focus instead on fundamental work in networking, wireless and optics."

Bell Labs distributed research model is not stagnating, according to the company, but in fact has been expanded with "directed" research focused on the core businesses of parent Alcatel-Lucent. The company also continues to receive awards for its pioneering work, but unless its quantum computation, high-speed electronics and nanotechnology group comes up with a breakthrough technology, Bell Labs in unlikely to receive any more Nobel Prizes.

- R. Colin Johnson
EE Times





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