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How America's top inventor Gurtej Sandhu gives back to students

The IIT Delhi-trained electrical engineer has racked up 1,335 US patents, besting prolific inventor Thomas Edisonís 1,093 patents.
BY BrainGain Magazine Staff Writer |   30-12-2019

Gurtej Singh Sandhu
For over 15 years, Micron Technology vice president Gurtej Singh Sandhu has mentored
engineering majors and faculty alike at Boise State University in Idaho.

Twenty-eight blue panels grace a visually stunning long wall at Boise’s Micron Technology campus. It lists tens of thousands of patents that Micron employees have earned. On closer inspection, there’s one name: Gurtej Singh Sandhu which pops up with clockwork regularity. Sandhu has racked up nearly 1,335 US patents at last count.

To put this in perspective, Sandhu’s impressive patents haul, bests Thomas Alva Edison, who accumulated a total of 1,093 US patents.

Sandhu was born in London to parents from India. However, he studied electrical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi, before coming to the United States to pursue a PhD in physics at the University of North Carolina, at Chapel Hill.

The prolific inventor was interested in integrated circuits — a set of electronic circuits on one small flat piece of semiconductor material that is normally silicon. In 1989, as Sandhu’s graduate study neared its end, his tech skills were in high demand. Flooded by job offers, Sandhu chose to go to work for chipmaker Micron Technology Inc, which at that time ranked No 18 on the list of memory chip companies.  

Nearly three decades later, Boise, Idaho-based Micron is now the world’s second-largest supplier of memory chips globally, offering chips that include DRAM, NAND flash and NOR flash.

Sandhu, who is a senior fellow and vice president at Micron, spearheads Micron Technology’s end-to-end R&D technology roadmap.
 

Larger than life mentor

As Micron has fostered closer ties with Boise State University, Sandhu has played a key role. For over 15 years, the Micron lifer has mentored engineering majors and faculty alike.

“He has his finger on the pulse of emerging technology on a global scale,” said Will Hughes, director of the university’s Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering. “I consider Gurtej to be a mentor of mine.”

According to the university, Sandhu helped launch the PhD in Materials Science and Engineering program, wrote letters of support for faculty submitting proposals for research funding, and even led Micron’s participation in Boise State’s research consortia, through which important science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) research on campus is conducted.

Victor V Zhirnov, chief scientist at Semiconductor Research Corporation, a technology research consortium said Sandhu has the “rare ability” to identify challenging research topics that can be effectively executed in the “open university research environment” and whose outcomes impact and guide industry product R&D.

In one case, when Sandhu came across an opportunity to conduct research on how to encode information onto DNA, he brought it to Harvard Medical School professor George Church and then put Boise State University in touch with the Micron Foundation, which granted seed money to get the project off the ground. The result is a Nature Materials article that coined the field Nucleic Acid Memory (NAM).

“My job is to get the best and brightest in engineering that we can, and partnering with Boise State allows me to do that,” Sandhu said in a recent interview.

“If we raise the profile of the university, attract and train good students, some of those students end up being our employees. This partnership encourages our employees to continue their education as well.”
 

Raising the bar

As memory cells on chips kept shrinking, engineers reached the point where they could no longer fit more zeroes and ones onto flat chips. Sandhu began to focus on stacking layers of two-dimensional memory atop one another. Stacking, still a work in progress, demands new processes to make it effective and affordable.

According to trade journal, “EEE Spectrum” which is edited by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Sandhu spurred the development of atomic layer deposition for high-k dielectric films to make DRAM devices. He also invented a semiconductor patterning process called pitch doubling, which drastically shrunk NAND flash memory. His chemical vapor deposition process for metal barrier layers is still used to make DRAM and NAND chips.

With the rapid evolution of technology, rise of artificial intelligence, large-scale data processing and the Internet of Things, the world’s memory needs will only rocket. For Sandhu, that means more patents, predicted the “Idaho Statesman.”

“A few years ago, I passed Edison, right? So, people started making noise,” Sandhu quipped to his local newspaper.

While Sandhu doesn’t compare himself to Edison as an inventor, he does like to see processes he patented used by other people, in their computers and portable devices.

“That’s my reward,” he told the Idaho Stateman. “Sitting in Boise, Idaho, and working for Micron, and everybody in the world is using your patent, using things you came up with.”
 

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