Thy Tran helped develop the new generation of DRAM chips
Thy Tran had a harrowing journey to the United States. Tran, now vice president of DRAM process integration at Micron in Boise, Idaho, fled Vietnam with her family in 1979, four years after the fall of Saigon.
“I remember sneaking out in the middle of the night on our third attempt,” Tran recalls. “My mother had to give my two younger brothers sleeping pills so that they would not cry in the middle of the night, for fear that we would get caught and be shot or be sent to prison.”
They lived at a refugee camp in Thailand for a year before immigrating to the United States.
The IEEE senior member calls electrical engineering her lucky ticket because it lifted her and her family out of poverty.
Engineering “became a passion, and still is,” she says. “I’m more excited to go to work today than the first day of my job right after graduating college.”
Tran is an expert in process integration for DRAM—dynamic random-access memory— technology. She led the Micron team that built DRAM using 1-alpha process technology. In January the company announced it had begun commercial production of chips built using the 1α technology. The process improves memory density by 40 percent over the company’s previous offering and saves mobile devices 15 percent more power, according to Tran.
ESCAPE FROM VIETNAM
Because of her experiences, Tran says, she doesn’t take anything for granted. After the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese, Tran’s father, who was part of the South Vietnamese military, was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Her mother, fearing for the family’s safety, decided to leave the country.
It took three attempts for Tran, her mother, and her brothers to successfully leave Vietnam. Like thousands of other Vietnamese people fleeing the war, the family boarded a boat. After surviving attacks by Thai pirates as well as dangerous thunderstorms, they reached Thailand. They lived in a refugee camp in the city of Songkhla for a year. With help from an aunt who lived in the United States, the family secured entry to the United States.
“Freedom is a privilege,” Tran says. “Resilience is what gets you through.”
When Tran was young, she aspired to be an artist, but her family couldn’t afford to pay for tuition. She decided to study engineering instead because she was able to get a full scholarship.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in EE from the University of Washington in Seattle in 1993, then joined Motorola in Austin, Texas. She worked on process technology for microprocessors and static RAM at Motorola’s MOS 11—the first factory in the world to build chips on 200-millimeter-diameter wafers, Tran says.
After three and a half years there, though, she decided she wanted to pursue a position that enabled her to explore the world and learn about other cultures.
“My guiding principle has always been not how much money I make, or the accolades that you get in life, but to live a full life,” she says.
She joined Siemens’ international transfer management team in 1996, in East Fishkill, N.Y. The team was tasked with leading a 200mm factory startup for ProMOS Technologies in Taiwan, a joint venture between Siemens and integrated circuit manufacturer Mosel Vitelic, which was based in California.
The startup gave her “a taste of the excitement and the adrenaline rush of starting something new and applying my experience to new situations,” Tran says. In 1997 she joined forces with her first manager at Motorola to found semiconductor manufacturer WaferTech. The Camas, Wash., company was the first fabrication plant in the United States that exclusively manufactured semiconductors. It was created by ADI, Altera, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing, and Integrated Silicon Solution.
Tran left after two years and joined Infineon in Richmond, Va., as a principal engineer. In 2004 she was relocated to the company’s research facility in Dresden, Germany, to help develop new DRAM technology.
She and her husband moved back to the United States in 2008 to be closer to family. She began working at Micron as the senior process integration engineer and rose through the ranks as a technical leader for multiple DRAM programs. She was promoted in 2019 to vice president of DRAM process integration.
“Before joining Micron, I had always admired how Micron was at the forefront of DRAM development and cost-effective technologies,” she says.
DEVELOPING THE 1-ALPHA NODE DRAM
Tran’s mission at Micron is to build its next generation of DRAM technology. Her team collaborated with Micron’s design and product engineering crews to take a holistic approach when developing the process, she says. They didn’t focus only on the design and engineering behind it; they also took into consideration manufacturing costs.
Making chips denser and smaller allows manufacturers to pack more transistors and capacitors onto a wafer—which helps to increase the number of bits and reduce costs. Today’s state-of-the-art DRAM chips have a half-pitch—half the distance between cells—of 10 to 19 nanometers. As the half-pitch has decreased in that range, the manufacturing process has progressed through a series of names: 1x to 1y to 1z.
Micron makes the 1α DRAM node by using multipatterning processes and advanced photolithography, whereby light is used to transfer a pattern from an optical mask onto a wafer. Extreme ultraviolet lithography is another way to produce finer features, but production costs are high and “the wavelength is so short that the light doesn’t pass through glass,” according to a blog post about the technology on the Micron website.
Because the 1α DRAM chip is smaller and more efficient, Tran says, it can be used for artificial intelligence applications and 5G technology. AI systems need massive storage and computing resources, she says, and the 1α DRAM is up to the challenge. Thanks to the chip, she says, 5G technology users can perform more tasks on their smartphone without losing as much battery life. Besides mobile phones, the DRAM chip can be used in computers, data centers, and server farms.
“The team went all out with respect to cutting-edge process and tooling capability,” Tran says. “We took more risks but also were very maniacal about defining what mitigations are needed to beat those risks.”
IEEE IS INTEGRAL
Tran, who joined IEEE more than 11 years ago, says she has the utmost regard for the organization. She has attended and presented at IEEE conferences, and if she cannot attend a conference, she makes sure a member of her team participates.
She says the IEEE Xplore Digital Library is her go-to resource for journals.
“As a member, I try to encourage others to join and to be active,” she says. “I have team members and colleagues who peer-review papers to give back to the organization.”