The whole world is tinkering with imec's high-tech garage

The whole world is tinkering with imec’s high-tech garage

He is not a fantasist – far from it. Nevertheless, Peter Peumans, director of the health branch of the Leuven research center imec, refers to The Matrix, the film in which a computer is linked to the brain of protagonist Neo. “That was over twenty years ago. That brain machine interface is now becoming a reality.”

Peumans’ team is working, among other things, on the Neuropixels probe, a sensor in the brain that registers individual nerve cells. The new version – Neuropixels 2.0 – was made available to brain researchers earlier this year. “With this they cannot read the entire brains of people, but they can read the thoughts of laboratory animals and learn how to interpret them,” says Peumans. By understanding the brain, scientists hope to find better therapies for diseases like Alzheimer’s.

A visit to the imec campus in Leuven, just east of Brussels, is a journey along the border of science and science fiction. The research institute stems from the Catholic University of Leuven and specialized in nanotechnology and semiconductors.

Five thousand researchers work at imec, five hundred of whom are seconded by tech companies from all over the world. Most imec employees are based in Leuven, where companies work together to find out how they can produce chips even smaller and more efficiently.

This usually concerns ‘pre-competitive’ research: anyone who builds a new chip factory worth 15 or 20 billion euros does not want to run the risk of investing in the wrong technology. Therefore, the semiconductor industry prefers to take the next technology leap together.

Companies such as Samsung, Intel, TSMC and their suppliers are working together at imec on production methods that will only be operational in about five years. Lithography, the illumination of chips, is a crucial step in this.

ASML from Veldhoven will first place the latest prototypes of its lithography machine in Leuven, so that chipmakers can already test them. Suppliers Applied Materials and ASM International, who take care of other production steps, also place their chip machines in the imec cleanroom.

The imec clean cleanroom photo imec

Right atoms in the right place

How small is ‘smaller’? The chip in the new iPhone 13, from TSMC, has 15 billion circuits on barely a square centimeter. Made using a manufacturing process that is accurate to within five nanometers – five millionths of a millimeter. At imec they are working even further ahead, he says. Peter Peumans: “While the industry produces chips with 7 or 5 nanometer technology, we are working here with 3, 2 and one and a half nanometers.”

Peumans, who graduated in engineering from KU Leuven, was a professor at Stanford University in Silicon Valley. He returned to set up imec’s health arm.

Peumans: “Our technology ensures that the right atoms are in the right place. So you can make a transistor with a hole of only a few nanometers, to pull molecules through it and read DNA.”

Medical applications do not always require a chip on the smallest scale: you can also build a chip that inspects human cells one by one. „Cells are ten microns in size; mastodons compared to a molecule,” says Peumans. “If you are researching diseases such as Alzheimer’s, it is important that you can see what is happening per cell. That requires enormous computing power.”

He predicts a data explosion if medicine’omics‘ embraces. That is the collective name for the analysis of, for example, DNA and RNA, as in genomics and transcriptomics: tailor-made medicine, on a nanometer scale.

The Leuven labs are also working on technology for quantum computers, photonics, artificial intelligence and 6G networks. Partner companies largely pay for these surveys. They provide three quarters of the budget, which last year amounted to 678 million euros.

Imec also has its own production line, with which smaller runs of specialized chips can be made. Peumans . “We remain non-profit: all the money that comes in is invested in research.”

Some projects lead to spin-offs, such as the company building a smart contact lens for people who are extremely sensitive to light. Also originated from imec: miDiagnostics, a start-up that can detect diseases such as cancer and diabetes in a drop of blood. It is reminiscent of the American Theranos, whose founder Elizabeth Holmes is on trial for fraud. Peumans: “It makes sense not to perform such tests in an expensive lab, but closer to home. Holmes’ vision wasn’t bad, but she had no technology. MiDiagnostics does have that.”

The whole world is tinkering with imec’s high-tech garage

An employee of imec. photo imec

A brake on China

Other European research institutes, such as the German Frauenhofer or CEA-Leti in France, often collaborate with local chip manufacturers. Although imec has ASML nearby, Belgium itself does not have a significant chip industry. “We have turned our weakness into our strength,” says imec CEO Luc Van den hove. “We had to ‘go outside’ and arouse the interest of Asia and the US.”

The imec campus thus became an example of international collaboration – including Chinese companies such as SMIC and Huawei, which established its European research center in Leuven. However, tensions between the US and China prevent imec from exporting sensitive chip technology to China – just as ASML is not allowed to sell advanced lithography machines to China.

Van den hove: “We want to comply with international export regulations. That is not difficult: 95 percent of what we do here is intended for the Western world.”

The imec CEO hopes that the geopolitical tension will disappear: “We had the same situation in the 1980s, when Japan and the US competed in memory chips. That has also been resolved. There are a lot of dependencies between American and Chinese companies – I’m counting on a new balance being created.”

The whole world is tinkering with imec’s high-tech garage
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