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Nano Utica provides spark in Rust Belt city

Office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo
Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during the announcement of a $1.5 billion investment into Nano Utica in mid-October.

In the Utica area, there’s been a lot of buzz lately about nanotechnology, and the possibility that a major nanotech manufacturing facility will soon locate  there. But what exactly is Nano Utica?

On a chilly November morning, contractors are giving public tours of a construction site at the SUNY Institute of Technology in Utica. But it’s not a classroom building or new dorm they’re walking around. The public is getting a sneak peak at something known here as Quad-C, the Computer Chip Commercialization Center.

"This will be the clean room, right here,” one contractor said during a tour.

There will be 56,000 square feet of clean rooms, to be exact at a high-tech lab for R&D in nanoelectronics. But it’s not some fantasy of the future. Steel is going up, cement is being poured and people like Sue Alberico are excited.

"This is a dream of a revival of an area," Alberico said. "I’ve watched businesses come and go and I’ve seen too many go. This is going to be my children’s future."

Quad-C is being built in partnership with the SUNY College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering in Albany. In October, six big tech companies announced they would invest $1.5 billion to make the facility a hub of nanotech development.

SUNY-IT president Robert Geer says this public-private partnership can make New York a leader as the world moves to a wireless economy.

"This facility will allow people to do research that really they can do in just a few places in the world," Geer explained.

He also says research into the next generation of the chips essential to modern electronics.

"The Quad-C is going to be focusing on those technologies a lot of which are called packaging technologies and they’re becoming very complex," Geer said. "Literally thinning and stacking chips so you can combine all these functionalities."

The research facility is expected to create more than a thousand high tech jobs. That’s big news in a rust belt region like Utica. But the bigger news could be what comes next, because here’s the thing about those chips.

They’re really tiny transistors made on silicon wafers 300 millimeters in diameter, about the size of a medium pizza. But that’s not big enough anymore. Geer says the industry will soon move to wafers 450 millimeters across.

"Everyone is used to their computer, their phone, their tablet being more powerful next year. To do that you need to put more transistors on a chip," Geer explained. "To be able to do that is incredibly expensive so you’d rather make more at once. The larger the wafer, the more you can make at once. It’s a simple economy of scale."

Just a quarter mile from Quad-C, in the town of Marcy, is a 420-acre site that state and local officials hope will soon become a world center for manufacturing those larger chips. They’ve spent more than $50 million building roads and water systems, electrical work is underway, and now some of the same players that made Quad-C a reality are partnering again.

"We would like Marcy to be the first 450 millimeter high volume manufacturing plant in the world," said Mark Reynolds, senior vice president at Mohawk Valley Edge, the economic agency behind the effort.

He says a key to realizing this high-tech future is the state’s commitment to putting up the bricks and mortar.

"The company doesn’t to put the billions of dollars on the table to build the plant, they just have to bring the people and the tools," Reynolds said.

The site is big enough for three chip fabrication plants, each representing as much as $13 billion in private investment.  Reynolds says each could lead to as many as 9,000 jobs in the area.

While this all seems hard to believe in a region that’s taken its economic lumps, insiders say the industry just needs to be sure the larger wafers can be produced cost effectively. Peter Singer is the editor-in-chief of Solid State Technology Magazine.

"In my opinion it’s a big experiment with the results left to be proven," Singer said. "But when you have companies like Intel, Samsung, and TSMC behind it they can most definitely make something like that happen."

If and when the chip fabrication plants break ground, it is expected to take about three-and-a-half years before the first silicon chips are produced.

Vanessa Maines reported this story as part of the New York Reporting Project at Utica College. You can read more of the project's storiesat their website, nyrp-uc.org.