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Taking The Reins Of The Institute For Compound Semiconductors

Leaving California for Cardiff is a price worth paying for taking the top job at the Institute for Compound Semiconductors BY RICHARD STEVENSON

Take a new job far away, and you should be prepared for a great deal of upheaval. Saying farewell to your colleagues and clearing your desk is only a small part of it. You will have to pack your belongings, move out of where you live and search for a new home. Your friendships will change, as those you bumped into day-by-day will now keep in touch via e-mail, calls and Facebook, and you will have to try and settle in a new location. And your family will face change, either because they go with you and face similar challenges, or because the steps taken to meet up with these loved ones will be very different from before.

This list of negatives grows even longer if you are the leader of an academic group. While the move to a new university may be enticing to you, it is unlikely to do so for those nearing the end of their PhD or their post-doctoral contract, so losing personnel is to be expected. If the move is overseas, then you should check the fine-print of your grants to determine the implications, while you get to grips with the funding process in your new country. And expect your research to be disrupted, whether you are packing up your lab and reassembling it, or buying, installing and setting up new equipment.

So, to outweigh this long list of inconveniences, a new job in a new country – and especially one that is an academic position – must have tremendous appeal. And in the case of Diana Huffaker, it certainly does. Early last year she left the sunny climes of California, where she had a great time heading the Integrated NanoMaterials Core Lab at UCLA, to far wetter Wales, to take charge of the Institute for Compound Semiconductors in Cardiff.

Money has been a big factor behind the move of this incredibly hard-working 52-year-old. She has netted funding worth £10-11 million with her appointment of a Sêr Cymru chair that is backed by a Welsh government initiative.

Huffaker’s move has also been motivated by the chance to play a key role in the setting up of the world’s first ever compound semiconductor cluster. The pieces of the jigsaw are starting to fall into place, with industrially relevant, company-led research at the institute set to dovetail into activities at the Compound Semiconductor Centre, and the CS Catapult. Together, this trio will provide a wide range of services, from design, epitaxy, fabrication, packaging and basic research to prototyping and foundry production. Running alongside these activities will be the EPSRC Manufacturing Hub in Future Compound Semiconductors, which aims to bring UK academics and industry together.

Hiring and hiring

One of the Huffaker’s leading priorities since arriving in Cardiff has been the putting together a top-notch team for the Institute. Combining moves within the university with hires from outside, she has assembled expertise that ranges from quantum technologies to energy harvesting/storage, III-N power and RF devices, and compound semiconductor MMICs (for more details, see “Leading lights at the Institute for Compound semiconductors").

The line-up is not yet complete – there are another nine or ten appointments still to make. “They run from lecturer to senior lecturer, a couple of readers, and one more professor," says Huffaker.

A great deal of Huffaker’s time is taken up with practical matters associated with the running of the Institute. She has been busy helping to put together a new business plan, a new financial model and a new strategic plan; deciding the terms of reference for the board; hiring an external committee; and selecting equipment for the facility.

The hope is that it will only be a matter of months before companies start to come to the Institute to seek solutions to their problems – and that this dialogue will start to shape the direction of the research. To help make this happen, the Institute is advertising for a Business Development Manager (BDM). “We’ve got a bid budget for a BDM, for travel and events," enthuses Huffaker.

Working with companies will come easily to this academic. That’s partly because she has already been involved in two start-ups, and partly because the focus of her work has always been on addressing real-world problems, rather than blue-sky research. She has a track record that is built on successes with compound semiconductor nanostructures and lattice-mismatched materials, with highlights including: optical links for avalanche photodiodes, which are more efficient than the incumbent approach, thanks to the use of nanostructures; development of a very effective passivation technique that allows nanostructures to deliver their promise; and a process for growing antimonides on top of either silicon or GaAs. On top of this, she has promising results for photovoltaics and gamma-ray detection. “With all the popularity of modular, nuclear reactors, we are really starting to go after some of those applications."


The new facility for the Institute for Compound Semiconductors is being built on the main university campus, and should be open for business in the first quarter of 2019.

A major milestone for the Institute for Compound Semiconductors will be its move into its new, purpose-built building next year. This central campus facility will have 13,500 ft2 of space – including 11,000 ft2 that is “clean" – and an area dedicated to packaging. Within this space there will be one line for processing material from a centimetre or so up to 4-inch, and another for 4-inch to 8-inch. Engineers will work on both these lines, using equipment from the same companies as much as possible, to ease the transition from development to production.

Huffaker’s research is not on hold while she waits to move in. She’s been busy building a full 4-inch line in a well-renovated facility within an existing university building. Members within her rapidly expanding group include an expert in MBE, another in MOCVD, and three post-doctoral fellow that are studying terahertz avalanche photodiodes, single-photon emitters and long-wave superlattice detectors.

Apart from one researcher that has come over from UCLA, Huffaker is having to build her team from scratch. But she has not abandoned her previous group. Instead, she has taken “leave of absence", and every two months she heads back there for a fortnight.

As the group there inevitably dwindles, Huffaker is unlikely to keep up such a gruelling schedule, and will surely spend more of her time in Cardiff. That would allow her to devote ever-more energy into figuring out how to drive the success of the Institute for Compound Semiconductors, and help her to meet her goals for the next 12 months, which include: hiring the BDM; engaging with industrial partners and external academics to increase the usage of the 4-inch line, while understand their needs for the 8-inch line; and expanding the size of her own group.

Come summer 2018, Huffaker and all her co-workers at the Institute should get the keys to their new building and start moving in their tools. “We expect to open for business in the first quarter of 2019."

The hope is that this leads to jobs, with companies from Europe moving to Cardiff and new firms starting-up in the Welsh capital. “The mission really is cluster," enthuses Hu