Illinois Plasma Institute
Solid. Liquid. Gas. And plasma: not blood plasma, but the hot, electrically charged fourth state of matter. Plasma appears all around us, whether in neon signs and fluorescent light bulbs, or as fire, lightning and the aurora borealis — even the Sun.
Plasma technology is also foundational to the modern electronics industry because it is used in many areas of semiconductor chips’ processing.
These chips are components of cell phones, automobiles, computers and many other electronics used in everyday life.
Plasmas are used at many stages of the chip manufacturing process, including the key steps of deposition, patterning and etching. They make the process faster, cheaper and more precise. Further, plasma engineering is also integral to the manufacture of the machines that make the computer chips.
As is common across many disciplines, research in plasma engineering is hindered by a large gap between the more fundamental research performed in academia and the applied research and development typically pursued in industry.
Enter an innovative solution: the Illinois Plasma Institute (IPI) at UIUC’s Research Park. Founded in 2020, IPI represents a novel approach to bridging that gap between industry and academia by bringing together industrial partners with academic researchers who are closer to the underlying science behind new technology. According to its director David Ruzic (Abel Bliss Professor in Nuclear, Plasma and Radiological Engineering), IPI is “driven by a desire to rethink existing pathways to commercialization of new technologies developed in academic research settings.”
One goal of IPI is to advance plasma technologies to higher “technology readiness levels” (TRLs). TRLs are used to assess the maturity level of a given technology and range from level 1, meaning that basic principles are being observed, to level 9, application of the technology in its final form.
“Academic research is really good at levels 1 through 4,” Ruzic says. “And industrial companies are really good at levels 7, 8 and 9. Then there are levels 5 and 6, called the Valley of Death.”
At levels 5 and 6, a technology begins to be developed and demonstrated beyond the level usually achieved in academia — but it isn’t close enough to final that a company would be interested in acquiring it and taking it to the finish line.
“IPI works by partnering with major companies who send their equipment along with research and development staff to our facility on campus,” Ruzic explains. “The graduate students, postdocs, research scientists and I work with them shoulder to shoulder to get through TRL 5 and 6 to get our new ideas actually into their products. These kinds of activities are rare; it’s really pretty remarkable.”
Through IPI, not only do staff from industrial partners get to work closely with academic researchers who have strong scientific expertise, but they also gain a pathway to the Master of Engineering program in Plasma Engineering through the Grainger College of Engineering. Because of their work at IPI, industry staff get the opportunity to take a few additional classes to get the degree, paid for by their company.
As Ruzic puts it, this is a “win-win-win situation” for IPI, the company and its employees. “Recruitment, retention and retraining for companies fit so naturally within this system when they have work going on here. That component has made it very attractive for companies to partner with us.”
Therefore, the major outputs of IPI include not just advanced research and development, but also highly trained researchers who easily attract job offers from industry. “They’re doing exactly what industry needs and wants,” Ruzic says.
In just a few short years, IPI has outgrown its original 2,000-sq.-ft. location and expanded both within its original facility and into the facility next door, making a combined space of 9,000 sq. ft. Nicknamed IPI North and IPI South, the combined facilities will provide ample space for more than 20 scientists — and many big ideas.