"When I first saw them I couldn't believe their size," said Ross, a graduate student in electrical engineering from Whitehall. "I thought: 'Holy cow those are small'."
The chips are home to a circuit of Ross' own design: a tiny building block to what someday could be a high-frequency communication device. Under a microscope, an electronic chip looks like an enormous metropolis. What Ross holds in his hand is one street on that city, a circuit built of devices 100 times smaller than the width of a human hair.
Ross has been sending an electro-magnetic signal down this street to see if he can make it stronger when it comes out the other end. His research is part of a worldwide effort that could dramatically change wireless communication devices, radar and even create new ways to detect harmful chemical and biological agents.
It's work made possible by Montana State University electrical engineering professor Jim Becker. In 2004, Becker won a prestigious $412,000 National Science Foundation Career Award. Using a portion of that award along with money from the NSF Major Research Instrumentation program, and the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, Becker was able to create the university's first high-frequency circuit lab.
The lab is the size of a large gardening shed. Its concrete block walls and institutional green paint house $600,000 of equipment, the likes of which is only seen west of the Mississippi at Stanford University, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech and MSU.
"This is the latest and the greatest," Becker said.
Formally called the Microwave and Millimeter Wave Electronics Lab, the facility's equipment allows Ross and fellow graduate student Kyle Lyson of Redmond, Wash., to test circuits and devices in the one to 300 gigahertz range made from silicon CMOS (complimentary metal oxide semiconductors). CMOS chips are in ipods, DVD players, laptop computers and global positioning devices.
"CMOS is ubiquitous," Becker said. "It's low cost and it's been around for awhile. It's the workhorse of the integrated circuit world."
Most CMOS chips operate at 10 gigahertz and less. To operate at higher frequencies currently requires chips of exotic and expensive materials, but Ross and Lyson are exploring ways to push CMOS into higher frequencies. Their work could have applications for pushing CMOS to 30 gigahertz and possibly higher.
If CMOS chips can be pushed into ever higher frequencies, it would mean an inexpensive way to manufacture chips that could handle orders of magnitude more data. That could mean wireless communication devices able to do even more; it could even mean better radar for commercial and military air traffic as well as devices that could detect harmful chemical and biological agents.
For Ross, the work in Becker's lab has helped him win several job offers.
"Working in the lab has definitely helped: being able to say that I've actually designed, fabricated and tested a chip," said Ross, who will finish his master's degree this summer.
He's been offered jobs by AMIS in Bozeman and Micron in Boise, Idaho. Both positions deal with the integrated circuit technology he's been working on.
"In electrical engineering we're always talking about the movement of electrons and you have to imagine these things," said Lyson, who will graduate in December. "So it is really nice to have hands-on experience and see how these devices are built in a commercial and research setting. It's a great experience, definitely."
In Lyson and Ross, Becker sees examples of what he hoped the lab would achieve.
"The Kyles are both fantastic students, top notch," Becker said. "In the past, MSU students were limited by resources in this field, but that's no longer an issue. That's really exciting. Now we have fantastic students, doing incredible work and they are only limited by their abilities and interests; not our facilities."