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The brains behind your next gadget come from this obscure medieval town

Scientists from chipmakers like Intel and Samsung work with universities at this Belgian center to make sure you'll still want to buy the latest tech 10 years from now.

Imec in Leuven, Belgium
Stephen Shankland/CNET

If you visit the quiet Belgian city of Leuven, you'll see centuries of history.

You'll notice cobblestone streets and zig-zag rooflines of red-brick houses hundreds of years old. You'll spot a crowd of students from the Catholic University of Leuven, founded in 1425, gathering at the cafes of the Oude Markt town square. You'll observe that a lot of them are drinking Stella Artois beer, made at a Leuven brewery operating since 1366.

But you won't just see the past. Right outside the medieval city center, nearly 2,400 researchers are figuring out how to make the computer chips that will be at the heart of our digital lives for the next decade.

They're working at Imec, an unusually cooperative organization you've probably never heard of. Here, chipmakers like Samsung and Intel -- ordinarily fierce rivals -- convene with university researchers and Imec's own staff to figure out how to sustain the remarkable progress of the computer chip industry.

"For chip technology, it's impossible for one company to do it all on its own," said Imec Chief Executive Luc Van den hove, a genial Belgian speaking in his office atop a tower far above fertile fields of Flanders.

You may take it for granted that you can stream a movie to your laptop or summon a ride with your phone. But it's at Imec where the foundation formed for many of these advances. Every few years, the electronics industry dramatically reshapes our lives, and it's Imec's job to keep our future full of surprises.

Shrinking circuitry

Imec blazes the trail the chip industry will follow, shrinking circuitry so computing power can spread to smartwatches and augmented-reality headsets. Increasingly, Imec also helps bring chip technology to industries that aren't so familiar with it, which is why Imec also works on chips for self-driving cars and earbuds that monitor your health.

In the earlier days of the chip industry, a gathering place like Imec wasn't so necessary. But now, it's getting harder to figure out how to shrink chips and more expensive to construct the factories that build them. Intel used to shrink chip circuits every two years, but it's now moving to a three-year cycle.

Chips today use electronic components so small that more than 700 could fit side by side across a human hair. They'll shrink more under Moore's Law, which is Intel co-founder Gordon Moore's prediction that you can essentially double computing power every two years. By 2024, 5,000 components could fit in the width of a strand of hair. You may have trouble settling your summer vacation, but Imec's plans already reach to 2026.

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A key part of the research is figuring out how to refine today's electronics, built on a substrate of the same silicon material that forms sand, and to figure out what comes next.

"As we look for the successor to silicon, cooperation is absolutely vital to prove that future technologies are commercially viable," said Linley Group analyst David Kanter. "Fundamentally, everyone is using the same equipment and dealing with the same problematic physics."

New clean room

To keep its research humming, Imec just this month opened a new $1.1 billion clean room, a vast and gleaming white chamber nearly the size of a football field. It's almost completely empty today, but it will fill up with the equipment Imec researchers need to plot the next phases of chip miniaturization. Imec already has two clean rooms, but the new one is crucial for developing the chips we'll see arriving in 2020 and beyond.

Imec's clean room is vast and empty now, but it will soon fill up with equipment to figure out how to build chips arriving in the early 2020s.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Imec is working on chips that can scan for cancer cells in a blood sample.


Its equipment explores high-tech options that only a Ph.D. could love, including nanowires, extreme ultraviolet lithography, spintronics and III-V materials. Those may sound like foreign words, but you'll ultimately appreciate them because they will make your smartphone smarter and bring computing brains to new domains like self-driving cars.

"Our mission is to enable the components that enable Moore's Law," said Aaron Thean, vice president of Imec's chip-manufacturing process work. "Imec is the premiere place where we can do this kind of work."

It's called a clean room because it's designed to filter out any dust particles that could contaminate the sensitive chipmaking process. Even though most of the actual chips stay sealed within the even cleaner confines of truck-size manufacturing machines, employees still must cover up with hairnets and "bunny suits" to keep stray hairs and flakes of skin from gumming up the works.

Expanding duties

At Imec's founding in 1984, the Belgian government provided funding. Almost immediately, though, industry partners started supplying the vast majority of the budget, which has grown steadily each year and reached about $470 million in 2015. In comparison, Intel has an annual research budget of $11.5 billion.

Imec is expanding into new domains where researchers don't have processor expertise. Health is one area, where chip technology can transform blood tests, DNA sequencing, drug discovery and health monitoring. The automotive industry is another, since chips are crucial for radar and other sensors.

This year, Imec announced it's merging with another Belgian research center, iMinds, which has 1,000 researchers of its own and a focus on software.

"In this industry, if you don't grow, you die," Van den hove said. "Imec is always reinventing itself."