Grand Challenges

6 mins read

Last month saw imec, the research and innovation hub based in Leuven in Belgium, host its annual technology forum ITF World.

It was not only a chance for the semiconductor industry to gather and discuss future trends and challenges with companies like AMD, Intel, ASML and TSMC among those presenting, but also an opportunity to celebrate imec’s 40th anniversary.

The event also saw the European Commission official, Thomas Skordas, announce that the European Chips Act was on track to help attract more than 100 billion euros worth of private investment to the European semiconductor industry by 2030.

The act has led to "promises for investments of the order of 100 billion euros to expand the manufacturing capacity within the EU by 2030", according to Skordas and the likes of Intel and TSMC have announced big European investment plans.

Imec was established back in the 1980s. Since then, the organisation, which was set up by a group of KU Leuven researchers, has grown into a world leading R&D powerhouse driving developments in microchip technology and has an important role in not only delivering on the aims of the European Chips Act, but a global role in driving R&D. It initially started with just 70 researchers but today is home to over 5,500 who are located around the world.

In his opening address imec’s president and CEO Luc Van den hove spoke about the historic role of imec in enabling some of the critical steps in the chip development roadmap. 

“If I look back to those 40 years, about every 10 years, we experienced a pivotal moment in our history, which was crucial in shaping imec into what it is today.  Given the complexity and associated cost of research, we've developed a unique collaboration model, which has allowed multiple companies, even fierce competitors, to participate in pre-competitive research.”

The idea of collaboration was central to many of the presentations at this year’s event and Van den hove pointed to the likes of Intel, TI, Samsung, and TSMC, who have come and worked together and continue to do so with imec.

“Imec has become the R&D gathering place for the microchip industry and we are committed to continue delivering on our mission, which is to advance disruptive innovations that will shape the future and tackle the tremendous challenges of our time,” said Van den hove.

‘Big Bang’

The role of imec in this microchip ‘Big Bang’ was driven by its decision to build an advanced cleanroom infrastructure, which has been critical in bringing together a broad microchip ecosystem. It’s installed some of the most advanced tools from nearly all the leading equipment suppliers, including 4 generations of EUV lithography and has been able to build what is the most advanced independent R&D pilot line in the world.

“The development of a 300mm clean room was a pivotal moment in our history,” according to Van den hove. “It allowed us to bring together the entire microchip ecosystem with the goal to jointly develop the key technologies enabling Moore’s law for logic and memory, including 3D integration and photonics technologies, and this, typically: 2, 3, 4 nodes ahead of industrial manufacturing.”

This has helped imec attract a very talented workforce and through the combination of impressive infrastructure and top talent, it has managed to attract almost the entire semiconductor ecosystem.

“From the very beginning, our motto has been to work with the leaders of our industry, to collaborate internationally.  This approach has brought us an extensive network of companies, spread across the entire value chain. In a unique model of collaboration, we have been facilitating cross-pollination - even between competitors,” Van den hove explained. “We bridge the gap from lab to fab; we de-risk disruptive academic ideas and help the industry with technology knowledge 5-10 years ahead of manufacturing.”

Turning to artificial intelligence, Van den hove said that the rapid developments in AI and the need to train large language models would require more versatile chip architectures and technology platforms and, as AI systems evolve, that is going to require a combination of large language models, perception models, and action models.

While the compute needs for AI have been exploding and model complexity has grown at a rate of more than 2 times per 6 months, which is even faster than Moore’s law, this has led to a massive expansion of compute capacity in data centres.

“Just expanding datacentres in an exponential way is not sustainable. So, we need more energy efficient and more performant compute platforms, and this has clearly been realised by transitioning from classical CPU towards GPU architectures, that leverage massive parallelisation,” according to Van den hove.

Energy efficiency

AMD CEO Lisa Su, who attended ITF World to accept the prestigious imec Innovation Award for innovation and industry leadership, used her presentation to discuss the company’s 30x25 goal, which aims for a 30x increase in compute node power efficiency by 2025.

Su said that the company was on course to meet that goal, but also said that she saw an opportunity to deliver a 100x improvement by 2026 to 2027.

Energy efficiency, as mentioned by Van den hove, was also a key theme of her presentation and she said that the explosion in AL LLMs was putting that issue at the forefront of problems confronting the industry. She warned that public power grids weren’t prepared for a sudden surge of power-hungry data centres and consequently power would be the new limiting factor for the industry going forward.

Many new data centres are being built next to power plants to ensure the supply of power, as the problems around energy look to intensify,

Su made the point that today’s generative AI models are growing at 20x per year, outstripping the pace of computing and memory advancements, and that the tens of thousands of GPUs being used are consuming tens of thousands of megawatt-hours, which could mean that several gigawatts of power could be needed to train a single model.

According to Su AMD, like many other companies, is now focused on improving power efficiency, and this consists of developing new silicon – in AMD’s case this is a 3nm Gate All Around (GAA) transistor – as well as advanced packaging and interconnects that enable more power-efficient and cost-effective modular designs.

Like Van den hove, Su also referred to the importance of ongoing co-operation and the important role of imec. She said that delivering on power efficiency improvements would take an industry-wide effort.

“We have the opportunity to drive the ecosystem by bringing many different capabilities and many different expertise’s together. I think that's the key for the next generation of innovation,” Su said.

Sanjay Natarajan, SVP & GM, Components Research, Intel, agreed suggesting that there was a path forward despite the challenges facing the industry, whether that was energy, sustainability or the need for new architectures.  “While there’s a path forward, we need to ensure transparency and much greater levels of collaboration and in that respect imec, and organisations like imec, have a key role to play.”

Chips Act and investment

Since the pandemic of 2022 the strategic importance of chips has increased enormously and that has been amplified by the ongoing geopolitical unrest.

“In response, multiple Chips Acts have emerged. If implemented in the right way, these Chips Acts will be instrumental, not only to ensure a more resilient microchip supply chain, but also to further tackle the phenomenal innovation challenges,” Van den hove said. “We believe that they will allow us to take collaboration to a next level and will be another major tipping point for imec, enabling the next phase of our growth, allowing us to further strongly increase our impact on the industry.”

As part of the EU Chips Act imec announced a major expansion, costing in excess of 2.5bn euros, of its R&D pilot line with the addition of a new 6000m2 cleanroom and more than100 tools.

“The first series of tools will be installed in a next module in the expanded shell of our current 300mm fab. In this expansion we will install ASML’s full suite of advanced lithography and metrology equipment, including the next generation 5200 high-NA EUV scanner. We will then connect the current fab module with our next Fab module: FAB4, another 4000m2, which is currently being designed,” said Van den hove. “This major expansion will allow us to double our capacity and to install all advanced technology capability that we will need for the next 5 to 10 years.”

Across the two days of the event, it was obvious that the phenomenal R&D challenges facing the industry will require much greater levels of collaboration.

“As the R&D challenges are unprecedented, to tackle these effectively, we will need critical mass and we need to combine the best of the best, through global collaboration,” said Van den hove. 

The NanoIC pilot line being built at imec is seen as playing a crucial ‘translator’ role between breakthrough semiconductor innovation and the wider European industry and is intended to enable companies to explore advanced chip technology solutions for their future applications.

With the pilot line, imec said that it aims to lower this threshold by offering early-stage Process Design Kits (PDKs) to start-ups, SMEs, universities, and design and system companies who will be able to use design pathfinding PDKs for virtual device prototyping, and system exploration PDKs for prototyping of advanced technology components on top of commercially available foundry wafers.

Through small volume manufacturing, imec looks to provide a pathway for companies to scale up from prototype to production.

The model of collaboration and co-operation developed by imec needs to be extended world-wide, according to Van den hove.  “Our industry is global. It is one global eco-system. Therefore, R&D needs to be global. We should not decouple the continents. We have to tackle the huge challenges in the most effective way.”

Van den hove called for a strategic partnership between the different Chips Acts, avoiding duplication and leveraging collaboration and suggested that the Chips Acts would also be essential to better connect the end-users and the end applications to the chips innovation process.

“I believe that will be absolutely essential to effectively support our global industry,” concluded Van den hove.