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Past Winner
2003 NSERC Doctoral Prize

Martin Dvorak

Engineering Science

Simon Fraser University

Dr. Martin Dvorak went out for the cyber equivalent of a Sunday drive and set a world speed record. At least that's the sense you get from the very modest electrical engineer and recent Simon Fraser University (SFU) graduate when he talks about creating the world's fastest bipolar transistor.

"I just wanted to graduate," says Dr. Dvorak, winner of a 2003 Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Doctoral Prize – one of Canada's premier graduate student awards. "It came as a shock to achieve the world record, because in the space of six months, we more than doubled the transistor's speed. When you're working on any kind of semiconductor process, there are a thousand things that can go wrong. Somehow I was just lucky and nothing went wrong."

Most semiconductors are made from silicon, for which there exists an enormous and highly sophisticated mass production process based around the computer processor industry. But, for some high power and high frequency applications, silicon-based transistors must trade-off speed in order to handle the high voltage and frequency. Telecommunications manufacturers are continually searching for novel transistor materials to suit the customized demands of, among others, radar and satellite components and high-frequency testing equipment.

Dr. Dvorak's speed record alternative to silicon is based on using a semiconductor ‘sandwich’ made up of layers of indium phosphide, gallium arsenide antimonide, and indium phosphide – the combination, a specialized transistor known as a "heterojunction bipolar transistor."

The approach was suggested by his supervisor, Dr. Colombo Bolognesi, who had recruited Dr. Dvorak to Simon Fraser in 1995 as the first student in his [Dr. Bolognesi's] newly established research lab. Dr. Simon Watkins, a physics professor at SFU, provided the growth reactor and expertise to create the unique semiconductor wafers.

"The material properties of these semiconductors are such that the electrons travel very quickly. And the semiconductor structures are small. So the electrons don't have to travel very far," explains Dr. Dvorak, who's now working with California-based Agilent Technologies Inc. to commercialize similar technologies. In 2001, he achieved a speed of 305 gigahertz (GHz), at the time the fastest bipolar transistor ever created in any semiconductor material. This speed record has since been surpassed and the current record is 375 GHz, held by IBM.

What makes Dr. Dvorak's record all the more impressive is that he set it using the "low-budget tool set of a small Canadian university," rather than a multinational corporation's R&D department.

Dr. Dvorak's research required that he work as a semiconductor jack-of-all-trades. He refined the lithographic techniques for fabricating the chips, developed high-speed test methods to verify the transistors' performances, and worked through three generations of process technologies to create a simple fabrication process.

Along with Agilent, many other companies, including Nortel Networks, are now racing to develop technologies based on indium phosphide transistors.

Ironically, Dr. Dvorak's record-setting research coincided with a record meltdown in the tech sector.

"When I was a student, everybody was thinking: We're set for life, we're in electrical engineering. We'll always have good, high-paying jobs, companies are clamouring to take us," says Dr. Dvorak. "Now I'm just lucky to have a job."