The chip design center Imec is located in the medieval city of Leuven, Belgium. The historic buildings are a strong contrast to Imec's high-tech mission, but they come together with common links to the city's university, founded in 1425.
For now, Imec's new clean room is nearly empty. This will change as new chipmaking equipment is installed so the chip industry can figure out what will work best to build future chips. The clean room is so named because it's kept free of dust and other contaminants that can spoil the super-small features of computer chips.
The current Imec clean room is packed with chipmaking equipment. Processors are made as circular disks of silicon crystals are shuttled from one machine to another. The machines lay down precise patterns of circuitry that form tiny on-off switches called transistors.
Imec is working on contact lenses that, after detecting whether a person is trying to read something up close or look at something farther away, autofocus accordingly. It's like bifocal glasses without the glasses.
Imec is branching out beyond helping chip industry companies to others wrestling to rebuild their businesses around computer technology. One example: this chip that can sort blood cells down different guides depending on whether their shape indicates the cell is cancerous. Imec's technology currently checks 4,000 cells per second, but researchers want to speed it up.
Andy Lambrechts, an Imec imaging program manager, shows how a hyperspectral image sensor takes 25 photos of the same scene, each photo in a different frequency of light. The technique can be used to spot food that's going bad or help scientists looking at satellite photos figure out exactly what plants are growing where.
Imec is researching hyperspectral image sensors, which capture many different colors of light, unlike human eyes, which see the world in just red, green and blue. Hyperspectral imaging has been a very expensive technology, but building it directly into the chip makes it cheap enough that farmers spraying fertilizer on crops can use computer analysis to instantly figure out exactly how much to use as a tractor traverses the field.
Imec's new cleanroom will be used to develop chipmaking processes for the whole chip industry. That industry funds Imec's cooperative work. The farther in the future the technology -- and the organization is looking at chips that will arrive in 2024 -- the more cooperative. Nearer-term research tends to be more proprietary and specific to a particular chipmaker like Samsung, Intel or Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp.
Imec is investigating not just traditional silicon solar cells, but also transparent thin-film solar cells that could be built into windows. It's also looking at combining the two to improve how much electrical power a solar panel can generate.
Imec Tower is modern but resembles medieval European buildings whose upper stories have more area than the ground floor -- an architectural design decision that made sense when taxes were based only on the ground-floor footprint.