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New investment boosts space-wafer technology

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mkbRRich Glover, owner of ACME Advanced Materials, Inc., shows one of the defective semiconductor wafers that the company measures and heals with breakthrough technology. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Venture investors have pumped another $550,000 into Albuquerque-based ACME Advanced Materials to prove that the best way to produce prime “A-grade” semiconducter “high bandgap” wafers for power electronics is by blasting them into space.

ACME has developed a process that uses the dead still of microgravity to smooth out defects in low-quality semiconductor wafers, turning them almost instantaneously into high-quality ones with immensely improved electrical conductivity.

That’s a potential eye-opener for industry, which is aggressively working to develop high-performance wafers made with advanced materials — known as “wide bandgap” semiconductors — to provide greater power for everything from automobiles to consumer appliances.

ACME, which launched in 2013, has sent about 300 such wafers to space on suborbital flights from Texas, backed by $1.5 million in venture investment from Cottonwood Technology Fund in New Mexico and Pangea Ventures of Canada. Now, the two funds have approved another half-million dollar investment to help ACME fully prove its space-flown wafers have indeed been converted into quality semiconductors that outperform the best wafers available.

“The company has already shown through in-house testing and assistance from the University of New Mexico that the process works,” said Cottonwood managing partner David Blivin. “But most potential customers want to see wafer performance measured directly in a device, so they’re doing additional testing now with Stanford University, and with companies interested in buying the wafers.”

Stanford is building a transistor to compare the space wafers with top-quality terrestrial ones. But previous Stanford testing with simple devices has already validated ACME’s process, Blivin said.

“Stanford compared our wafer with a high-quality silicon carbide wafer that cost like $3,000,” Blivin said. “Our wafer showed dramatically better performance characteristics, and yet we started with low-grade wafers that cost only $200 to $300 each before flying to microgravity.”

ACME President and CEO Rich Glover said it’s the still of space — free from earth’s gravity and the terrestrial vibrations and jitters that interfere with semiconductor manufacturing — that allows ACME’s curing process to remove defects from wafers. The company has sent payloads on 12 suborbital flights managed by a confidential partner in Texas, but new missions are temporarily on hold pending the wafer testing.

“After that, we’ll start taking flight orders from paying customers,” Glover said.

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