Intel was stumped.
Seeking a smaller, faster computer chip, the company couldn't find a way to peel back metals from one layer without damaging other tiny, delicate structures. It couldn't interest its vendors in coming up with a solution, so it turned to one of its young Hillsboro engineers, Nabil Mistkawi.
Within three days, he had a solution that's now saving Intel millions of dollars annually - and ultimately earned Mistkawi a chemistry Ph.D. at Portland State University.
"It became very clear to me that I had to not follow the path of others, and go where there is no path," he said.
His solution illustrates that innovation can spring as much from creativity as scientific rigor, Mistkawi said. It's also emblematic of the tight bond between Portland State and Intel.
Intel's headquarters are in California, but the company employs 15,000 in Oregon, more than any other business.
One in every 15 of those Oregon workers holds a Portland State degree, and the company helps pay for many current employees to advance their education at the downtown university.
That's how Mistkawi came to Portland State. A University of Oregon grad, he went to work for Intel in 1993 and found himself surrounded by colleagues with doctorates. So he set out on the long process of obtaining one himself, without giving up his full-time job.
"It's pretty extraordinary that he was able to accomplish this and work full time," said Erica Thompson, an Intel colleague who has followed Mistkawi's work.
Semiconductor manufacturers build their computer chips atop silicon wafers, adding as many as 10 successive layers of metal while etching away a portion of each. The process goes through many iterations over several weeks.
"When you make a microprocessor there's about 400 to 500 steps," said Mistkawi, a research chemist and engineer.
Any step that slows the process clogs up the factory and delays the chip's completion. In an industry where products age as rapidly as uncorked wine, Intel can't afford delays.
For a key step in a new design, Intel needed a technique to strip out some materials while leaving others for connections and insulation. Conventional approaches had failed, so Mistkawi put his imagination to work.
"In a way, knowledge is limited to all we know and understand. That's where imagination comes from, because everything we know and understand had been tried," he said.
"That coupling of knowledge and understanding is what made this possible."
Neither Intel nor Mistkawi volunteered details of his approach, but they say it's 98 percent water, using fewer caustic chemicals than many etch techniques.
In addition to the environmental benefits, his approach saves Intel money, as there are fewer chemicals to buy and to dispose of. And at least as important, from Intel's perspective, it's a direct approach that streamlines manufacturing.
"Because of that, you're able to save money because of time, process time," Thompson said. "Other ways to get around it are probably much more expensive, and there are a lot of additional steps."
After conceiving his idea, Mistkawi spent a year refining it for mass adoption with his colleagues. The work of fellow engineer Lourdes Dominguez was particularly important, he said. Intel broadly adopted the technique across its factories in 2007 and now uses upward of 6,000 gallons of Mistkawi's solution every week.
Meanwhile, Mistkawi went about studying the principles behind his advance. That work, over four additional years, earned him his Ph.D. this year. Though many Intel employees pass through PSU, either at the beginning of their careers or in the middle, few take on the arduous task of pursuing a doctorate while working full time.
"That really takes a lot of effort, so this is really unusual," said Shankar Rananavare, PSU chemistry professor and Mistkawi's faculty adviser. Still, Rananavare said he sees a steady stream of Intel students pass through his labs at PSU.
"I try to make a special effort because the world they face is much more complicated than normal graduate students," he said.
Intel recruits to Oregon from top engineering schools across the country and around the globe. PSU does not carry a world-class reputation, but it has steadily invested in its science programs. The most tangible symbol of its aspirations is the glossy $35 million engineering building that opened in 2006.
So the relationship between Portland State and Intel is in part a matter of convenience, a nearby school to advance the education of Intel's employees. But Rananavare said it's also an endorsement of the caliber of PSU's programs.
"Proximity helps," he said. "But in the end, what you do matters."
Big employers commonly build close ties with their local universities. The schools provide a pool of prospective employees and a resource for research and employees' continuing education.
Intel's campuses near Phoenix have a close bond with Arizona State University, for example, and the University of Washington maintains a close connection with Boeing, among others.
Across Intel, roughly 3 percent of its employees are pursuing additional degrees at any given time, according to Morgan Anderson, an Intel government affairs manager in Hillsboro.
"We have a saying at Intel that you own your own employability," she said. "Each job that every employee seeks, they have to earn it."
Intel frequently helps out, paying 100 percent of employees' continuing education costs, up to $50,000, for studies directly related to their jobs. In Oregon, Anderson said, Intel began steering more students to Portland State a few years ago after determining PSU's programs met the company's standards better than other regional programs.
"We were spending a lot of money on private universities that didn't have the top level of accreditation," she said.
PSU has responded by tailoring its engineering program to fit Intel's needs, she said, and setting class schedules to accommodate factory technicians who work long hours. The university's faculty and engineering dean frequently meet with Intel, according to Anderson, looking for ways to coordinate their programs with Intel research, and that's helped establish a close relationship.
"I think Portland State is just a little bit hungrier than other universities," she said.
Intel and PSU
- Of Intel's 15,000 Oregon employees, at least 1,000 hold PSU degrees.
- Across the whole company, Intel says PSU is routinely among the company's top three sources of recent college graduates.
- Intel and Portland State partner to bring Vietnamese students to Oregon to train for work in Intel's factory in Vietnam.
Title: Process engineer
Family: Lives in Keizer with his wife and three children.
Education: Moved to Oregon from the Palestinian section of Jerusalem in 1986 to study at the University of Oregon. Earned his Ph.D. in chemistry at Portland State University this year.
Published: Saturday, September 04, 2010, 3:00 PM
Updated: Sunday, September 05, 2010, 2:05 PM