Johnson Matthey Electronics’ most recent research project puts the company in the thick of a worldwide technology race to produce a flat-screen television set.
If the project headed up by the Spokane-based company is successful, the result will be large-screen television sets a quarter of an inch thick that can hang on the wall, and lasers that will allow submarines to communicate directly with satellites from ocean depths.
“The benefits commercially and militarily are enormous down the road if we can be successful,” says Geoff Wild, president of Johnson Matthey Electronics Division, the Spokane-based unit of British conglomerate Johnson Matthey Plc. “And the programs are really working very well. Of course it’s too early to say whether we’ll be successful.
“This is high-risk research.”
Another aspect of such complex projects, though, is their value as a marketing tool.
If you want to compete in the incredibly competitive semiconductor industry on a world-class basis, Wild says, it helps to be known as a company capable of world-class research.
“You don’t get to be No. 1 in this industry just by copying what your competitors are doing,” Wild says. “You have to encourage innovation and risk-taking.”
Much of Johnson Matthey’s current research efforts are centered at its Spokane facility, but the company’s commitment to long-range research has reached the point that it must begin planning for a full-scale research facility.
“We’re going to need a technical research center,” Wild says, “a stand-alone facility where we’ll be able to conduct research for the electronics division.
“But we’ve just started talking about that.”
So no decisions have been made about where such a facility would be located.
“We really don’t know whether that would be in Spokane, or in the Bay Area, or perhaps in Arizona where a number of our customers are based,” Wild says.
If it was just a question of the cheapest and best place to build and equip a $35 million structure, the choice would be easy.
“Spokane is clearly the winner when you’re talking about the cost of building, the infrastructure and all the rest of it,” Wild says.
The decision could ride on the availability of qualified researchers.
“You’ve got to staff it with 20 or 30 PhD metallurgists to start with, and the question for us would be whether Spokane is the right area to be able to attract and maintain that kind of talent.”
The big momentum-builder in the evolution of Johnson Matthey Electronics’ research efforts was an $18 million grant from the federal Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) several years ago. The goal of the program is to make infrared recording technology commercially affordable. Using photonic - rather than electronic - microchips, the program would drastically reduce the cost of equipment that records infrared rays, the same way video cassette recorders record the visible light spectrum.
Johnson Matthey’s partners in that program include Texas Instruments, Loral Corp., and II-VI Corp.
The company’s performance in that program helped convince ARPA to choose Johnson Matthey to receive an additional $21 million in grants and head up a consortium of some of America’s biggest electronics companies in the more complex effort to produce a blue light-emitting diode (LED) and a blue laser.
“You have a green LED and a red LED,” Wild says. “The blue is what’s missing to allow flat-screen televisions. And the same technology would produce blue lasers, which don’t exist now.”
Because water absorbs red light, Wild explains that red lasers are useless for underwater applications. But a blue laser could be bounced off a satellite to a submarine under a mile of water allowing direct communications with the Pentagon, which is not now possible.
“So you can see the potential,” Wild says. “If we could succeed in this, we wouldn’t start manufacturing flat-screen televisions, but we sure as hell would be trying to form some collaborative ventures.”
Wild says the ARPA grant programs are a perfect fit for Johnson Matthey.
“It will be five years before these things become commercial reality,” he says, “and we couldn’t afford by ourselves to put up the hundreds of millions of dollars necessary to achieve it.
“But the power of the ARPA contracts is not only to support this kind of speculative research, but that they also organize a group of subcontractors into a team approach of some of the leading U.S. companies, which probably would never get together if left to their own devices.”