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ITF World presents the semiconductor industry to mark imec’s 40th birthday

10 Jul 2024

With stellar cast of presenters and a showcase of the latest cutting-edge technologies.

By William G. Schulz

For its ITF World 2024 symposium, host imec, headquartered in Leuven, Belgium, pulled out all the stops for its annual two-day event at the end of May, with a stellar cast of presenters from the heights of the semiconductor industry to an exhibit floor showcasing some of its absolute cutting-edge technology. This year, ITF World was also an opportunity for imec to celebrate its 40th anniversary.

The festivities in Antwerp coincided with another major inflexion point for the global semiconductor industry: CHIPs Act legislation in Europe and the US that has begun pouring government-backed money and other resources into semiconductor R & D, packaging, and manufacturing.

The new laws—designed as both domestic economic engines as well as cornerstones of national security—come at a time of need to greatly expand data-processing capacity, but with a heightened, parallel urgency to reduce computing’s enormous carbon footprint.

President and CEO of imec, Luc Van den hove, opened the symposium talks by recounting imec’s growth as an R&D center for the semiconductor industry, and one that is poised to meet today’s new challenges. He noted how its pre-competitive collaborations with industry have led to new capabilities in chip making, including, now, the integration of photonics, and new architectures like stacked chips for massively parallel processing.

It is a history that has tracked Moore’s Law, Van den hove said. “With every step of technology, more powerful applications have become possible. With every step of miniaturization, a whole new world opens up. It's like looking up at the sky through an ever-more-powerful telescope.”

imec expanding R&D

With CHIPs Act funding, Van den hove said, imec is set to expand its R&D facilities by an additional 6,000 sq m, which will allow a suite of advanced lithography and metrology equipment. The €2.5 billion investment, he said, will give imec the advanced technology capabilities that will be needed over the next five to 10 years to move the technology and the industry forward.

Expanded R&D capabilities are urgently needed to help the industry meet some of its biggest challenges yet, agreed ITF World 2024 keynote speaker Lisa Su, chair and CEO of AMD. She noted that while artificial intelligence (AI) has been around for many years, it has recently become “the most exciting aspect of compute.”

Most notable, Su said, is the ability, with large language models, for everyone to interact with AI in a much more straightforward manner.

“Think about Chat GPT. It is only 18 months old, but everyone now knows what AI is and everyone is driving to get to that next big leap… we're seeing model complexity go up 20 times per year.”

While AI is certainly placing unprecedented demands on computing power, Su said, “What is also important is the energy it takes to really drive that computer performance… we’re seeing as the models for AI get more and more advanced that we need exponential growth in model sizes that are driving massive increases in computing, but also massive increases in power required to train these models.

“And frankly, we don’t know where this is going to end.” As an industry, she said chip makers need to “bend the curve” on energy efficiency with innovation at every level—processing, packaging, algorithms—whatever might lead to greater sustainability.

Extending Moore’s law

To sustain the trajectory of Moore’s Law—particularly with the advent of the challenges presented by AI—Martin van den Brink, former president and CTO of ASML, said a combination of leading-edge and mainstream semiconductor technologies will be indispensable. He cited improved lithography platforms, including metrology; the integration of 3D stacking in chip architecture; and ASML’s advanced extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography, which now allows production in the 5 nm node.

“The latest generation in EUV, the EXE or high NA EUV lithography will enable multiple future notes and will extend Moore’s law into the next decade,” he said.

Indeed, Jochen Hanebeck, CEO of Infineon Technologies, said highly efficient systems based on wide band gap semiconductors will play a major role in decarbonization. “Recently GaN is getting a lot of attention and will likely be the preferred technology by the end of the decade for several core applications, including chargers, data centers, onboard chargers, low-power motor control, and residential solar.”

And to tackle AI’s increase in global data generation, in addition to green energy, green computing will require “new approaches to power-efficient solutions based on new semiconductor materials and topologies, as well as new innovative architectures, such as neuromorphic structures, to significantly increase the computing power per energy unit,” Hanebeck said.

The realization of AI follows a classic, positive feedback loop of technology enablement and application impact, said Aart de Geus, executive chair and founder of Synopsis. “We have just entered multi-decade exponential advances of enormous consequence. Top-down, we see pervasive-AI deeply impacting products, processes, and potentially the very essence of mankind. Bottom-up, the race towards Angstrom-sized devices is multiplied by high-connectivity multi-die systems driving Tera transistor compute power.”

De Geus sees the path forward as one that delivers software-defined architectures implemented on multi-die structures. He said this effort will require cooperation and teamwork in multiple disciplines. “What better location than imec to, in concert, unleash these new exponential hits by the exponential formerly known as Moore’s Law.”

After nearly 60 years of Moore’s Law innovations, “Today we live in a world in which nearly every aspect of our lives is touched by technology, including technology itself,” said Sanjay Natarajan, senior vice president and general manager of Intel. With AI, computing workloads, storage needs, and power-hungry data transfer rates, Moore’s Law “has become more relevant than ever.”

Natarajan said, however, that Moore’s Law never rested on just a single approach. Dimensional scaling, new materials, novel architectures, and disruptive innovation at all levels of computing systems, have all contributed in parallel but with perhaps shifting weights of relevance over time.

“In my opinion, there is no great answer that we can point to collectively and say this looks like the way to go next,” he said. He added that the future is always somewhat foggy. “But you know, that’s what people who run research labs around the world get paid to do—to see as much into the future as possible.”

However, “being excellent in research and innovation is really not enough,” said Thomas Skordas, Deputy Director-General at the European Commision's Directorate General of Communications Networks, Content and Technology (“DG CNECT”).

“So Europe [through its CHIPs Act] is now also strengthening its infrastructure capacities… the aim is to make Europe a significant player in semiconductor production technology and production facilities.” As with the US and its CHIPs and Science Act, Europe’s aim with the legislation—particularly after the pandemic-era semiconductor supply chain disruptions—has been to ensure access to the highest levels of chip technology and the chips, too.

Skordas said four pilot lines are being established with imec as a major player hosting the line for sub-2-nm chips. Other participating laboratories include France’s CEA-Leti, German’s Fraunhofer, VTT of Finland, CSSNT of Romania, and Ireland’s Tyndall Institute.

The pilot lines, Skordas said, will accelerate process development, testing, experimentation, and validation of design concepts, with the fruits of these efforts available to a wide range of users. “We hope that these pilot lines will really pave the way for the next generation [semiconductor] manufacturing capabilities to be in Europe.”

William G. Schulz is Editor in Chief of SPIE’s Photonics Focus.

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