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U. OF IDAHO `IN THE CHIPS' AT LAST

After nearly 10 years of struggling to establish the University of Idaho's computer chip research program, officials say the enterprise is thriving and is even earning a profit for the school.

The program started in a dirty university basement, but now microchip researchers have an actual office with new carpeting and paint and secretarial support - along with some national recognition."It's certainly a Cinderella story in so many ways, growing out of those bare-bones quarters and getting a first-rate facility," said Joe Feeley, chairman of the UI electronics engineering department.

The center last year was named one of the nation's eight National Aeronautics and Space Administration Engineering Research Centers and received a five-year grant of $7 million.

As a result the center's customers now include the jet propulsion laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.; the Goddard Space Flight Center in Washington, D.C.; and the Defense Department.

This February the center delivered to NASA a thumbnail-sized chip that will be instrumental in decoding information from a $1 billion telescope scheduled to be placed in space aboard a shuttle in December.

The device can decode a billion bits of information a second, replacing a box of computer parts that would fill a breadbox.