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SemiSouth boosting state’s technology base

STARKVILLE –With the price of gasoline spiraling upward, sales of hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) are rising. In an effort to avoid stagnation, makers of HEVs are looking to cut costs by using silicon carbide (SiC) chips to reduce the size of the power electronics and increase the operation temperature. More specifically, SiC components, located in the controller, are able to convert the battery’s DC output into an AC source suitable for the motor.

What does this mean for Mississippi? More business. Specifically for Starkville-based SemiSouth, a semiconductor company specializing in SiC materials and electrical components for high-power, high-efficiency, harsh-environment power management and conversion applications.

Industry analysts have already recognized SemiSouth for the company’s pioneering efforts to develop and integrate advanced SiC control circuitry and power transistors in a compact power module for use in HEVs. By using SiC counterparts, for example, the HEV motor-drive-inverter volume is reduced by more than 50% and the liquid cooling system is eliminated.

Two weeks ago, SemiSouth celebrated its booming business by moving into its expanded home base, which includes a futuristic-looking clean room, in the Thad Cochran Research, Technology and Economic Development Park at Mississippi State University (MSU).

“The completion of this facility is a major milestone for both SemiSouth and Mississippi,” said Dr. Jeff Casady, founder and president of SemiSouth. “This opening marks the debut of the first major semiconductor (microchip) manufacturing facility in the state and provides a solid example of homegrown high-tech economic development.”

The seeds of SemiSouth were planted in 1999, when MSU recruited Casady and SemiSouth co-founder Mike Mazzolla to the university. The duo collaborated on SiC industry trends and formed a high-tech company in the research park. In 2001, SemiSouth started operations in a 20,000-square-foot space in the Powe Center. After investing $6 million in capital expenses, the company took over the lease for the entire facility in mid-2006.

“We believe we now have the first clean room for manufacturing in Mississippi,” said Casady. “We’re excited about that. We have to gown up and wear all-white, full-body suits from head to toe because there are very small scale particles on semiconductor wafers and controlling particles of dirt is an extremely big deal. That’s why clean rooms are so expensive.”

The new clean room is operational, and SemiSouth is in the process of moving existing equipment to the new facility, with additional equipment to be delivered soon for installation and operation. More equipment for redundancy and additional process capability is expected during the next six to 12 months.

“It’s expected that the facility will be fully operational by the end of the third quarter or early fourth quarter,” said SemiSouth spokesperson Keith Nootbaar. “This facility will expand our epiwafer capacity and position ourselves to be able to meet the needs of our customers who are expanding their requirements. In addition, our first major customer proprietary product will be ramping into production in the fourth quarter. This product is based upon our patent-protected SiC JFET technology.”

Typically, SemiSouth’s product would be designed into power supplies, such as the component with a fan inside a desktop, or the black box on a power cord to a laptop. However, the company’s product is more valuable in larger type computer components such as for servers, or in power converters such as motor drives. One such application would be for the power converter and motor drive for a HEV.

“Since most of our customers are building components for a larger system, the manufacturers of these types of components are not well known,” said Nootbaar. “However, their end customers are very well known, such as Dell, HP, IBM, Sony, GE, Delphi, Daimler-Chrysler, Siemens.”

With SemiSouth’s primary goal to be a major supplier of SiC components to the power electronics market, the new manufacturing facility (fab) is the first step toward realizing that goal, said Nootbaar.

“Our next challenges are to complete the installation of equipment in the fab and qualify the manufacturing processes,” he noted. “Simultaneously, we’ll be finalizing our initial SiC power microchip product development based upon our technology. We’re focused on launching our initial commercial standard product early next year and growing significantly in the years to come.”

Early on, Casady persuaded a supplier company, II-VI Inc., (pronounced two-six) to move into the research park, which also recently expanded.

“Every region in the country is trying to attract companies with high tech jobs,” said Nootbaar. “Many perceive that microchip manufacturers — companies like Intel — are the ultimate in high tech jobs. Traditionally, these types of companies have been concentrated on the west coast or in areas like Phoenix or Austin. SemiSouth represents … an emerging technology here in northern Mississippi. The visibility from this type of high-tech base can be leveraged to attract more high tech companies to the region.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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