Summer of most advanced technologies

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16 juli 2013 | This year Oxford hosts the first summer school on “Intelligent Front-End Signal Processing for Frontier Exploitation in Research and Industry” that focuses on technologies that will drive innovation. Will the introduction of 3D computer chips mean that we can keep up with Moore’s law?

From 10 to 16 July the first summer school on Intelligent Front-End Signal Processing for Frontier Exploitation in Research and Industry is held in Oxford. Here PhD and postdoc students have the opportunity to learn the latest technologies which drive innovation from some of the frontier researchers. Sander Breur attends this summer school and shares some of the highlights: ”two examples of technologies that will change the way we work and think are 3D chip architecture for computers and PET/MRI scanning for medical applications”.

Moore’s law

All the improvements that have made our electronic equipment, such as smartphones and laptops, faster and smaller are based on the fact that more and more processes can be done on chips. Gordon E. Moore, one of the co-founders of Intel, made the observation in 1965 that every two years the number of transistors on integrated circuits approximately doubles. Until this day his prediction still holds, thanks to the fact that industry has been able to create chips with smaller and smaller electronics.

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The biggest challenge the chip industry faces today is that not all advantages scale when making smaller and smaller chips. The scale one speaks about here is in nanometers (nm) (a billionth of a meter).  For example, the speed of computer cores (several MHz) has not increased over the last few years, which is the reason why we now have quad and octo cores. As can be seen in the figure below, the 45nm technology has made sure we cannot use less power per chip. The cost per chip does not go down anymore since the 28nm scale and a new chip factory costs several billion dollars. Now that the 16 and 14 nm goals have been reached the chips are not even becoming smaller because of interference between the transistors.

3D technology

Then how can we keep up with Moore’s law? One of the companies that has found a solution to this problem is Illinois-based Tezzaron. Instead of building 2D chips with smaller transistors, they connect chips together to actually build 3D electrical structures. In this way one can separate memory from logic units, which lowers the power consumption while it increases the speed and going a step beyond Moore’s law. For example, the 3D DRAM memory, which stacks chips of memory, control and interface, has 4-64Gb of memory with a speed of 1GHz. The challenge for industry is now to leave behind the 2D way of thinking and start their future innovation in 3D.

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Combining medical imaging

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), which is used in every hospital, gives us the chance to look into the body without harming it. The fact that it can show the activity of the brain makes it the perfect tool for studying human responses. What it lacks is the ability to distinguish between soft tissue and for example a tumor. Positron emission tomography (PET) has been developed to show the locations of these tumors but does not show the internal structure an MRI can provide. PET works with a radioactive tracer, which attaches to the tumor and then emits gamma rays, which show precisely its location.

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The big leap in innovation is now being made by integrating these two technologies into one hybrid MRI/PET scanner. The big challenge here is that inside the huge magnetic field of the MRI scanner every metallic part will disrupt the imaging. This is being solved with optical fibers, new silicon detectors and nonmagnetic materials.  The result is a consumer friendly integrated MRI/PET scanner that will give medics the opportunity to look into our bodies and define new ways of treatment.

P.A. (Sander) Breur

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