Located south of The University of New Mexico’s main campus is a powerful technology research center specializing in lasers, semiconductors, quantum research and more. The Center for High Technology Materials (CHTM) has a 40-year history of studying the potential devices of tomorrow. The center celebrated its ruby anniversary on June 15 with a day of presentations, tours and events to commemorate its past and future.
CHTM was founded in 1983 to help promote research activity and economic development in New Mexico as one of five Centers for Technical Excellence created by the New Mexico State Legislature. The legislature established the center with an initial investment of $10 million for funding over five years. Since then, the center has received more than $243 million in grant awards, developed abundant intellectual property, and helped prepare the next generation of scientific researchers.
“CHTM has truly moved New Mexico forward,” James Holloway, UNM Provost, said during the event’s opening presentation.
He highlighted the areas in which the center has embodied UNM’s strategic goals like its preparation of students for high-paying careers and outreach work with K-12 schools to help promote science and engineering. The organization also embodies what it means to work as one university through its interdisciplinary collaboration between academic departments, he said.
“CHTM in its 40 years has already delivered on UNM 2040, even before UNM 2040 was written on paper, and it is continuing to do so as we look into the future,” Holloway said.
A walk around CHTM makes clear the center’s impact, even for those unacquainted with the nuances of semiconductors and crystal growth. The facility boasts a nanofabrication cleanroom facility, growth capabilities, semiconductor characterization tools and optics labs.
Just 40 years since its inception, faculty at CHTM have generated more than 268 issued patents, roughly 35% of the University’s patent portfolio, and approximately $90 million for UNM in patent revenue. The center’s 16 faculty members, who serve dual appointments in academic departments across UNM, have collaborated on projects funded by the National Science Foundation, DARPA, the U.S. Department of Defense and many more.
“From an economic development point of view, the benefits from this research include U.S. competitiveness, job creation from startup companies that have started from CHTM, as well as the workforce training that is critical for our industries and startups to have talented people,” Lisa Kuuttila, UNM Rainforest Innovations CEO, said in a presentation during CHTM’s anniversary event. “There’s also access to world-class equipment from CHTM user facilities and that’s something that [our state’s] startups do take advantage of.”
Even with significant intellectual property activity and substantial grant awards, the crowned jewel of CHTM’s accomplishments might just be the 600 graduate student degrees enabled through mentorship with the center’s faculty.
“The students who work here learn everything needed to advance technology and then when they go to work they can actually transfer that knowledge into technology that is needed in the state and the United States,” Payman Zarkesh-Ha, director of CHTM, said.
These accomplishments were commemorated throughout CHTM’s anniversary celebration held on June 15. The day featured presentations about the history and future of the center, a keynote speaker, panel discussions from alumni, a poster presentation on current research, facility tours and the burying of a time capsule. Remarks were delivered by James Holloway, UNM provost; Ellen Fisher, UNM vice president of research; Elizabeth Kuuttila, CEO of Rainforest Innovations; Steve Brueck, executive director emeritus of CHTM; Francesca Cavallo, assistant director of CHTM, and more.
There was even a champagne toast for Brueck, a prolific researcher and professor emeritus, who now holds more than 100 patents. When Zarkesh-Ha gave his toast, he joked that in the time it took to plan the celebratory event, Brueck had already achieved a number of additional patents (he currently holds 103). Brueck, who retired from his longtime position as executive director of CHTM in 2013, now utilizes lab space in the facility for Armonica Technologies, a medtech company he founded.
The presentations made clear that high technology at CHTM has evolved over time. Originally, the center focused on optoelectronics and semiconductor diode lasers. As a national need to regain competitiveness in the semiconductor industry arose in the mid-1980s, CHTM broadened its scope to include end-to-end semiconductor manufacturing capabilities. The facility can now perform every step in the manufacturing process from material growth to performance testing. Researchers at the facility have a particular interest in studying alternatives to silicon, the material that powers the chips in electronic devices ranging from cell phones to medical equipment.
The center has continued evolving to remain competitive by expanding into quantum computing and materials research.
Even as technology continues to change, history has a way of repeating itself. The center is once again well-positioned for success as the federal government works to incentivize semiconductor advancement and domestic manufacturing again. Last year’s federal implementation of the CHIPS and Science Act, aimed at boosting American semiconductor research, leaves CHTM well-positioned for a bright future.
“We have now positioned ourselves for much more advanced research including quantum computing and materials sciences on top of the electrical and optoelectronic devices we’ve always worked on, so we can well position ourselves to get involved with the CHIPS Act and anything that can help the nation advance in technology,” Zarkesh-Ha said.