X

A glimpse of tomorrow's chip tech from Belgium's Imec (pictures)

The research center has a gleaming new clean room, a facility to test chipmaking equipment for phones and PCs arriving five or ten years from now. Here's a look.

stephenshankland.jpg
stephenshankland.jpg

Stephen Shankland

See full bio
Leuven, Belgium
1 of 22 Stephen Shankland/CNET

Leuven, Belgium

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.

Imec's new clean room
2 of 22 Stephen Shankland/CNET

Imec's new clean room

Imec built a new $1.1 billion clean room, a mammoth block of a building that will be used to design the computer chips that will arrive in 2020 and beyond.

Imec's new clean room
3 of 22 Stephen Shankland/CNET

Imec's empty clean room

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.

Imec's existing cleanroom
4 of 22 Stephen Shankland/CNET

Imec's existing clean room

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 camouflage
5 of 22 Stephen Shankland/CNET

Imec camouflage

The new Imec clean room is a hulking presence, but its exterior is reflective to help the building seem more like whatever mixture of clouds or blue sky prevails over the Belgian city of Leuven.

Imec autofocusing contact lens
6 of 22 Imec

Imec autofocusing contact lens

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 in Leuven, Belgium
7 of 22 Stephen Shankland/CNET

Belgian commuter

Belgium is partial to cycling with bike paths all over that are widely used even in bad weather. This one leads from the center of Leuven to Imec to the south of the city center.

Imec blood-sorting chip
8 of 22 Imec

Imec blood-sorting chip

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.

Imec hyperspectral imaging
9 of 22 Stephen Shankland/CNET

Imec hyperspectral imaging

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.

Hyperspectral image sensors
10 of 22 Stephen Shankland/CNET

Hyperspectral image sensors

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.

When peas go bad
11 of 22 Imec

When peas go bad

When fruits and vegetables go bad, they can change colors, but it's not always so obvious as in this case. Hyperspectral imaging can spot subtle signs.

Hyperspectral field analysis
12 of 22 Imec

Hyperspectral field analysis

A hyperspectral camera reveals much more information about a field than an ordinary camera or human eye can detect.

Imec in Leuven, Belgium
13 of 22 Stephen Shankland/CNET

Imec Tower

Imec's new cleanroom is seamlessly attached to the earlier building, but it breaks with the prevailing architectural style.

Imec cleanroom
14 of 22 Stephen Shankland/CNET

Imec cleanroom

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 CEO Luc Van den hove
15 of 22 Stephen Shankland/CNET

Imec CEO Luc Van den hove

Imec CEO Luc Van den hove works in an office atop Imec tower overlooking the Flemish countryside.

Imec wearable computing devices
16 of 22 Imec

Imec wearable computing devices

Imec has developed prototype brain activity monitors that are easier to wear than a bunch of electrodes.

Imec self-driving car sensor
17 of 22 Imec

Imec self-driving car sensor

Imec is working on chip technology to make self-driving cars more economical. This chip is for radar that can detect events like another car ahead braking.

Better solar
18 of 22 Imec

Better solar

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 in Leuven, Belgium
19 of 22 Stephen Shankland/CNET

Imec interior

Imec has grown since its founding in a single building in 1984. Now it's got a cluster connected by pathways and rainproof corridors.

Imec Tower
20 of 22 Stephen Shankland/CNET

Imec Tower

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.

Imec in Leuven, Belgium
21 of 22 Stephen Shankland/CNET

Imec cleanroom

Imec cleanroom in Leuven, Belgium.

Leuven, Belgium
22 of 22 Stephen Shankland/CNET

Leuven, Belgium

Central Leuven in Flemish Belgium features historic buildings.

More Galleries

2022's Best TV Shows You Can't Miss on Netflix, HBO, Disney Plus and More

More Galleries

2022's Best TV Shows You Can't Miss on Netflix, HBO, Disney Plus and More

95 Photos
Movies Coming in 2022 From Marvel, Netflix, DC and More

More Galleries

Movies Coming in 2022 From Marvel, Netflix, DC and More

84 Photos
2024 Chevy Silverado HD Debuts New Look, New Towing Tech

More Galleries

2024 Chevy Silverado HD Debuts New Look, New Towing Tech

28 Photos
The Absolute Best Games on Nintendo Switch

More Galleries

The Absolute Best Games on Nintendo Switch

36 Photos
DIY scratched screen repair: Magic and myths

More Galleries

DIY scratched screen repair: Magic and myths

10 Photos
The 51 Best VR Games

More Galleries

The 51 Best VR Games

53 Photos
2023 BMW XM PHEV SUV Has Brash and Crazy Style

More Galleries

2023 BMW XM PHEV SUV Has Brash and Crazy Style

11 Photos