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Imec gears up for the Internet of Things economy  

Luc Van den hove is talking in the darkened ballroom in a hotel next to the brilliantly sunlit marina in Herzliya.

It is the imec's CEO's first trip to Israel and around us the room is being prepared for an afternoon of presentations the Belgium nanoelectronics research centre will give on its work in such areas as the Internet of Things and 5G wireless to an audience of Israeli start-ups and entrepreneurs.


Luc Van den hove

iMinds merger

Imec announced in February its plan to merge with iMinds, a Belgium research centre specialising in systems software and security, a move that will add 1,000 staff to imec's 2,500 researchers.

At first glance, the world-renown semiconductor process technology R&D centre joining forces with a systems house is a surprising move. But for Van den hove, it is a natural development as the company continues to grow from its technology origins to include systems-based research.

"Over the last 15 years we have built up more activities at the system level," he says. "These include everything related to the Internet of Things - our wireless and sensor programmes; we have a very strong programme on biomedical applications, which we sometimes refer to as the Internet of Healthy Things - wearable and diagnostics devices, but always leveraging our core competency in process technology."

Imec is also active in energy research: solar cells, power devices and now battery technology.

For many of these systems R&D programmes, an increasing challenge is managing data. "If we think about wearable devices, they collect data all the time, so we need to build up expertise in data fusion and data science topics," says Van den hove. There is also the issue of data security, especially regarding personal medical data. Many security solutions are embedded in software, says Van den hove, but hardware also plays a role.


Imec expects the Internet of Things to generate massive amounts of data, and more and more intelligence will need to be embedded at different levels in the network


"It just so happens that next to imec we have iMinds, a research centre that has top expertise in these areas [data and security]," says Van den hove. "Rather than compete with them, we felt it made more sense to just merge."

The merger also reflects the emergence of the Internet of Things economy, he says, where not only will there be software development but also hardware innovation: "You need much more hardware-software co-development". The merger is expected to be completed in the summer.


Internet of Things

Imec expects the Internet of Things to generate massive amounts of data, and more and more intelligence will need to be embedded at different levels in the network.

"Some people refer to it as the fog - you have the cloud and then the fog, which brings more data processing into the lower parts of the network," says Van den hove. "We refer to it as the Intuitive Internet of Things with intelligence being built into the sensor nodes, and these nodes will understand what the user needs; it is more than just measuring and sending everything to the cloud."

Van den hove says some in the industry believe that these sensors will be made in cheap, older-generation chip technologies and that processing will be performed in data centres. "We don't think so," he says. "And as we build in more intelligence, the sensors will need more sophisticated semiconductors."

Imec's belief is that the Internet of Things will be a driver for the full spectrum of semiconductor technologies. "This includes the high-end [process] nodes, not only for servers but for sophisticated sensors," he says.

"In the previous waves of innovation, you had the big companies dominating everything," he says. "With the Internet of Things, we are going to address so many different markets - all the industrial sectors will get innovation from the Internet of Things." There will be opportunities for the big players but there will also be many niche markets addressed by start-ups and small to medium enterprises.

Imec's trip to Israel is in response to the country's many start-ups and its entrepreneurship. "Especially now with our wish to be more active in the Internet of Things, we are going to work more with start-ups and support them," he says. "I believe Israel is an extremely interesting area for us in the broad scope of the Internet of Things: in wireless and all these new applications." 



Semiconductor roadmap

Van den hove's background is in semiconductor process technology. He highlights the  consolidation going on in the chip industry due, in part, to the CMOS feature nodes becoming more complex and requiring greater R&D expenditure to develop, but this is a story he has heard throughout his career.

"It always becomes more difficult - that is Moore's law - and [chip] volumes compensate for those challenges," says Van den hove. When he started his career 30 years ago the outlook was that Moore's law would end in 10 years' time. "If I talk to my core CMOS experts, the outlook is still 10 years," he says.

Imec is working on 7nm, 5nm and 3nm feature-size CMOS process technologies. "We see a clear roadmap to get there," he says. He expects the third dimension and stacking will be used more extensively, but he does not foresee the need for new materials like graphene or carbon nanotubes being used for the 3nm process node.

Imec is pursuing finFET transistor technology and this could be turned 90 degrees to become a vertical nanowire, he says. "But this is going to be based on silicon and maybe some compound semiconductors like germanium and III-V materials added on top of silicon." The imec CEO believes carbon-based materials will appear only after 3nm. 

"The one thing that has to happen is that we have a cost-effective lithography technique and so EUV [extreme ultraviolet lithography] needs to make progress," he says. Here too he is upbeat  pointing to the significant progress made in this area in the last year. "I think we are now very close to real introduction and manufacturing," he says.


We see strong [silicon photonics] opportunities for optical interconnect and that is one of our biggest activities, but also sensor technology, particularly in the medical domain


Silicon Photonics

Silicon photonics is another active research area with some 200 staff at imec and at its associated laboratory at Ghent university. "We see strong opportunities for optical interconnect and that is one of our biggest activities, but also sensor technology, particularly in the medical domain," he says.

Imec views silicon photonics as an evolutionary technology. "Photonics is being used at a certain level of a system now and, step by step, it will get closer to the chip," he says. "We are focussing more on when it will be on the board and on the chip."

Van den hove talks about integrating the photonics on a silicon interposer platform to create a cost-effective solution for the printed circuit board and chip levels. For him, first applications of such technology will be at the highest-end technologies of the data centre.

For biomedical sensors, silicon photonics is a very good detector technology. "You can grow molecules on top of the photonic components and by shining light through them you can perform spectroscopy; the solution is extremely sensitive and we are using it for many biomedical applications," he says.  

Looking forward, what most excites Van den hove is the opportunity semiconductor technology has to bring innovation to so many industrial sectors: "Semiconductors have created a fantastic revolution is the way we communicate and compute but now we have an opportunity to bring innovation to nearly all segments of industry".

He cites medical applications as one example. "We all know people that have suffered from cancer in our family, if we can make a device that would detect cancer at a very early stage, it would have an enormous impact on our lives."

Van den hove says that while semiconductors is a mature technology, what is happening now is that semiconductors will miniaturise some of the diagnostics devices just like has happened with the cellular phone.

"We are developing a single chip that will allow us to do a full blood analysis in 10 minutes," he says. DNA sequencing will also become a routine procedure when visiting a doctor. "That is all going to be enabled by semiconductor technology."

Such developments is also a reflection of how various technologies are coming together: the combination of photonics with semiconductors, and the computing now available.

Imec is developing a disposable chip designed to find tumour cells in the blood that requires the analysis of thousands of images per second. "The chip is disposable but the calculations will be done on a computer, but it is only with the most advanced technology that you can do that," says Van den hove.  

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