TI Collaborates with University of Florida Student on FRAM Research

A research connection – a new idea that needed explaining. That’s what former University of Florida (UF) student and now full-time TIer Tony Acosta had stumbled upon. He thought he had found a link between graduate school research and discoveries he had made as a TI intern. He just needed the mentorship support to research his findings.

The discovery began when Acosta was researching strained silicon, a method used in silicon to boost the performance of transistors (the basic building blocks of chips), as a UF graduate student. He took this knowledge with him to his first TI internship in the summer of 2008, where he worked with his TI mentor, senior member of technical staff Dr. John Rodriguez, on Ferroelectric Random Access Memory (FRAM) development.

 When he returned to school, he met with his UF advisor and professor, Dr. Toshikazu Nishida, and discussed his FRAM research findings. The two realized that some of the same methods Acosta had been researching could be applied to FRAM technology. FRAM is a nonvolatile memory that features low-power consumption with high-speed write and read access, attributes useful in applications such as data logging, remote sensors and smart meters. Embedded in TI’s MSP430 Wolverine microcontroller platform, FRAM helps cut energy consumption by half. Basically, it is a more efficient flash memory alternative.

That’s when Acosta, Rodriguez and professor Nishida decided to submit a research project funding proposal to TI, to explore Acosta’s findings. “FRAM is an important technology for low-power integrated circuit applications, and we felt there was a lot of synergy there,” Rodriguez says. “Not to mention, academic settings are appropriate for exploring these new concepts because universities have the opportunities to be on the forefront of the knowledge space. These research projects are helping to train the next generation of engineering talent.”

TI loved the project concept, and professor Nishida, in collaboration with TI, secured a Semiconductor Research Corporation (SRC) grant, a larger-scale, multiple-year fund, to support Acosta. Nishida and Acosta kicked off the project – which also served as the basis for Acosta’s dissertation and earning his Ph.D. -- in Sept. 2010. In a nutshell, Acosta’s goal was to determine how strain could be advantageously used to improve FRAM signal magnitude, or performance.

Acosta spent two years researching and experimenting, treating the project as a full-time job while working in labs and offices provided to UF engineering students. “A lot of times, as a grad student, you have to do what your advisor tells you to do,” Acosta says. “But I got to do something I like – something that I was interested in.”

Not only that, but Acosta was able to see what the end result of his efforts could potentially be. “A lot of times, you do this kind of work, and it doesn’t really go to the industrial level,” he says. “It stays academic and people don’t really get to see their work move. But since we were close to the industry, we got to see the impact it could have at an industry or production level.”

Acosta and Nishida met regularly, and held weekly meetings with Rodriguez to present their findings. “We became a close team,” Rodriguez says. Acosta continued to intern at TI with Rodriguez as his mentor each summer. Ultimately, his project findings were so substantial that he submitted a patent application, “which was really exciting,” Rodriguez says.

Rodriguez himself earned the prestigious 2012 Mahboob Khan Outstanding Industry Liaison award (he was nominated by Nishida) for his work in mentoring Acosta. “It’s a testament of sorts to the relationship we developed,” Rodriguez says.

Nishida agrees, adding that the project has come full-circle. Now, phone calls between UF and TI mean Acosta and Rodriguez on one end of the line, and Nishida and his current students on the other. “It’s very gratifying to see graduate students learn and excel and then move to the next step toward becoming a productive, professional engineer,” Nishida says.

What’s in full-time TI product engineer Acosta’s future? He’s participating in a training rotation program within the FRAM group. His first rotation is in process integration. “I get to work with a lot of people who work in the manufacturing fabs, so I get to see what they are doing. I’m also learning something completely new that I didn’t have any experience in before,” he says. “And I’m still working with Dr. Rodriguez and professor Nishida. It has been a great transition from school to my professional career.”