ANTWERP, Belgium — A handful of projects discussed at the Imec Tech Forum here reflect the depth and breadth of research in electronics today. They range from explorations of the molecular physics behind advanced CMOS to the latest debates in technology policy.

As Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation went into effect, Imec researchers demoed radar as an alternative to surveillance cameras to provide data while protecting identity. The systems, aimed at use in smart buildings, sensed and tracked moving robots and humans, including vital signs such as breathing and heart rate.

Unlike most cameras, radar operates in the dark, provides 3D image data, and more easily blends into surroundings. However, radar sports higher costs due in part to its lower volumes.

Demos showed 7- and 77-GHz radars tracking the movements of robots using various machine-learning algorithms. So far, it’s unclear which frequencies are best-suited to radar for smart buildings.

“It’s still a wilderness of options, and there’s not much regulation or standardization giving direction — also the markets are still emerging,” said Katherine Philips, director of IoT at Imec.

 

Radar signals can detect heartbeat and respiration, although not at medical-grade accuracy.
Radar signals can detect heartbeat and respiration, although not at medical-grade accuracy. (All images provided by Imec unless otherwise noted.)


Speeding up wireless components

Imec described a new program exploring III-V processes and new circuit designs to build faster, more efficient RF components that are still CMOS-compatible. The technology aims to serve a wide range of applications from 5G cellular to terahertz imaging.

The effort is in part motivated by a need for smaller cellular front-end modules that support a growing range of frequency bands. It also aims to decrease the growing number of antennas needed in phased arrays.

“The number of switches, power amps, and filters needed for cellular systems seems to nearly double each generation, and now 5G is adding millimeter-wave support,” said Nadine Collaert, manager of the high-speed analog RF program.

The project recognizes that CMOS can’t keep up with required speeds, but III-V processes hold great promise. For instance, gallium nitride “is used in base stations, and we believe that it will be extremely important for [mmWave] small cells and maybe even handsets,” she said.

The program seeks ways to integrate more exotic processes and designs with CMOS. It will explore techniques such as use of hybrid 3D circuit stacks.

So far, Imec recruited a mix of four foundry and fabless partners for the program. It believes that it will have spinoff benefits in areas including high-speed wired networking, imaging, and cellular backhaul beyond 60 GHz.

A separate effort at an Imec lab in Osceola County, Florida, has developed a prototype of a tunable 0- to 1.3-THz imaging system. It aims to slash by more than half the cost of today’s laser-based scanners for uses that include inspecting everything from consumer packages to rebar in nuclear power plants.

 

To meet tomorrow's required speeds, RF components need to move up to III-V materials yet remain compatible with CMOS.
To meet tomorrow’s required speeds, RF components need to move up to III-V materials yet remain compatible with CMOS.


Charging up a solid-state lithium battery

The expected acceleration of the market for electric cars is driving interest in denser, safer batteries. Imec is working with partners to adopt silicon as an anode replacing graphite in today’s lithium-ion batteries, delivering a 50% density improvement.

Lithium-ion is expected to reach its limits with the silicon anode. The next big leap is in using lithium metal eventually in a solid-state battery. Given the research hurdles ahead, such batteries could still be more than a decade away.

Materials engineers are working on new kinds of functional coatings between anode and cathode materials as one key to the effort. The coatings act as an ion-to-electron interface, extending density and speeding charge times.

Umicore Battery road map

Umicore, a 15-year-old materials and recycling company in Belgium with expertise in batteries, showed a roadmap for battery technology. Source: Umicore.


LoRa watches for floods in Antwerp

Imec senior researcher Johan Bergs (below) shows an example of one of 15 LoRa nodes currently deployed in a test system in northern Antwerp. The network aims to provide first responders more accurate and timely alerts when floods start to back up the city’s water system.

It’s just one example of a broad effort between Imec and city officials to make Antwerp a living lab for projects focused on the Internet of Things. It operates under the governance of open data guidelines created by the region of Flanders.

 

LoRa plugs into Antwerp smart city pilot.
LoRa plugs into Antwerp smart city pilot. (Image: EE Times)


Fingerprints on your smartphone display

Imagine a smartphone that would unlock if any of your fingers touched any part of its display surface — and it might even collect data on your heart rate. That’s a concept that Imec researchers are pursuing with display technology in the lab, capable of generating more than a thousand pixels per square inch on an AMOLED.

Imec is working on read-out circuits for the prototype displays made by patterning thin-film photodetectors next to OLEDs. At least two smartphone makers are participating in the project.

 

Imec's approach could also resolve a palm print.
Imec’s approach could also resolve a palm print.


Low-cost liquid cooling

Google recently announced that it is using liquid cooling to support its latest AI accelerator. Anticipating that others may need similar thermal support, Imec researchers developed a plastic device that can be 3D-printed for the task.

Researchers claim that it can deliver up to five times the thermal relief of today’s techniques because it delivers liquid directly to the package without the usual intermediate thermal layers.

The liquid cooler could be 3D-printed in plastic.
The liquid cooler could be 3D-printed in plastic.


Getting down to atomic levels

Sergiu Clima (below) got his Ph.D. in materials simulation and analysis at K.U. Leuven. He stayed on to join Imec, where he explores the kinds of molecular-level phenomena beginning to impact advanced CMOS processes as foundries employ EUV lithography to create features at sizes approaching 20 nm.

 

Exploring nano-sized effects in simulations.
Exploring nano-sized effects in simulations. (Image: EE Times)


Rendering lifelike holograms

Projecting a hologram of Princess Leia is still something for a distant future in a galaxy far, far away. But at Imec’s neighboring university, Professor Peter Schelkens is exploring the path to get there.

Schelkens showed work creating digital holograms with computer-generated images and holographic codecs, advancing technology first discovered by Denis Gabor in 1948.

Holograms are already used in microscopy, but macroscopic holograms from the likes of Microsoft and Nvidia still use relatively small sets of pixels. Calculating, transporting, and displaying the dense pixel clouds needed to render a lifelike Princess Leia leaves plenty of challenges for academics like Schelkens.

A rough hologram shown in a 64K x 64K resolution.
A rough hologram shown in a 64K x 64K resolution.

— Rick Merritt, Silicon Valley Bureau Chief, EE Times