Mike Messina, a customer service engineer for Dutch-based high-tech company ASML, worked on the installation of the company's Microscan photolithography tool yesterday at Mid-Pacific Photonics in Kakaako. The machine makes computer chips.

Light speed

Computer chips manufactured here
for the Navy will outpace electricity

In the luxury of a climate-controlled truck led by a police escort, the mechanical heart of an advanced new chip-making facility rolled in style to its new Kakaako home this week.

The precious cargo that arrived Tuesday is a $6 million cameralike device that will fabricate some of the world's most advanced integrated circuit chips, and its red-carpet arrival attests to the high-tech expectations being raised by Kakaako's newest resident.

Los Angeles-based Advanced Photonics Integrated Circuits is putting the finishing touches on a research and development facility that will house the device in an ultrasanitary "clean room" and begin making highly advanced chip prototypes for the Navy.

But the company's founder, Raj Dutt, aims to pursue broader research and commercial tie-ins that could benefit Hawaii's fledgling high-tech sector.

"This stuff is on the bleeding edge, and it can only raise the bar around here for everyone," Dutt said.

The Keawe Street facility is called Mid-Pacific Photonics, and it has a five-year, $100 million contract to supply the military with advanced chips based on photonics.

Traditional electronic semiconductors use electrons to process energy and information. But photonics involves the use of light, which makes possible progressively faster and smaller devices, with wide applicability from medicine to telecommunications.

A possible initial application, Dutt said, might be to provide chips for fiber-optic networks within jet fighters to replace traditional copper wires, which are far heavier and can short out.

But a host of other futuristic uses are possible, such as the creation of hypodermic needles so thin that injections are painless, or the creation of tiny devices that clear arteries "like a Roto-Rooter," Dutt said.

"It's pretty amazing stuff for a little town like Honolulu," said Phil Bossert, executive director of the state's High Technology Development Corp.

Bossert said the photonics plant's capabilities are "perfect" for its neighbor, the University of Hawaii's John A. Burns School of Medicine, which is under construction. Moreover, Dutt has promised UH faculty and students access to the Kakaako laboratory.

"The kind of thing he'll be doing will allow a whole new area of research at the university because now they'll have the capacity for it," Bossert said.

Dutt, who also donated $500,000 toward the establishment of an engineering professorship at UH, acknowledges that his bridge-building is motivated by self-interest. He plans to hire about 25 people initially for the plant, primarily those with advanced physics degrees. But a local shortage of such personnel could be a problem for him, and he wants to help foster more local expertise.

"We hope to plant a seed. For this industry to really grow, a collaborative effort between the university and industry is essential," Dutt said.

The nearly complete Kakaako plant spans 10,000 square feet, but Dutt hopes to eventually expand, especially if he can develop a commercial market. He says he has already begun speaking with a number of prominent local high-tech companies.

One of those is Hawaii Biotech. David Watumull, chief executive of the local biopharmaceutical firm, said Mid-Pacific Photonics' chips could help his firm develop new ways of measuring biological reactions.

"It would allow us to do that at a much smaller, more minute level. That's what we need to do," he said.

Dutt said he was told it is too hard to set up a high-tech venture in Hawaii. The usual hurdles include infrastructure issues such as venture capital and expert personnel, but he experienced a different speed bump.

The arrival of the plant's central device, called a Microscan, was delayed by the company's inability to find suitable transportation.

Much like a camera, the device uses light to make imprints on special wafers, thus creating the integrated circuit chips. There are about 140 Microscans in the world, most of which are used by chip-making giant Intel Corp. Its optics are extremely sensitive to even the slightest impact, temperature and humidity changes, and exposure to dust. The device must be transported by special trucks with air-ride suspension and interior temperature control.

Dutt says such trucks are readily available in other cities, but one could not be found here and the company had to improvise a solution with a standard moving truck.

"All I heard before I came here was, 'You can't do it in Hawaii,'" Dutt said. "Part of our objective is to show it can be done."

High Technology Development Corp.


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