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Posted: October 26, 2009
FP7 EUROPRACTICE projects lead the way in microchip design
(Nanowerk News) Helped by more than EUR 7 million of Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) and Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) funding, the EUROPRACTICE IC3 and EUROPRACTICE IC4 projects have produced state-of-the-art micromechanical and microelectronic technologies that are being used in universities and industry worldwide to create microchip applications for uses ranging from space technology to medical diagnostics. Using a single wafer for a range of microelectronic systems means low costs and a construction that is as simple and accessible as possible.
A simple idea to install multiple microelectronic or micromechanical systems on a single wafer to drastically cut high production costs is helping to keep Europe's microchip industry competitive worldwide.
The multi-project wafer (MPW) device has given universities access to state-of-the-art microchip design tools and has helped small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to fabricate novel microchips. Thousands of universities and SMEs now use the EUROPRACTICE (CAD [computer aided design] and IC [integrated circuit] services for European universities and research institutes) MPW, giving European students, researchers and companies the chance to access the latest microchip design tools and fabrication techniques.
Installing multiple projects on to a single wafer can cut the cost of producing a microchip by up to 90%. With this innovation, EUROPRACTICE has enlarged European business and created the opportunity to bring hundreds of new microelectronic and micromechanical applications on to the market every year.
Carl Das, project manager at Belgian nanotechnology company IMEC, which coordinates EUROPRACTICE, says, 'The best training is to give someone the chance to design a chip, make it, measure it and verify it. In addition, if smaller companies didn't get this kind of access, their ability to innovate would be dead-ended.'
Microchips can cost from EUR 50,000 to EUR 200,000, but the EUROPRACTICE MPW means costs can be kept down to around EUR 5,000 or even less. Costs are low enough with EU funding for hundreds of EU companies and universities each year to use EUROPRACTICE to produce new products.
Researchers are provided with detailed support to make the process of microchip design as easy as possible. These include a set of design rules and software to simulate how the prototype circuit will behave. State-of-the-art tools generate an image of the final layout which then goes to a foundry where the chips are fabricated.
Carl Das says, 'We do a lot of checking to make sure that the designs will function. Once we've transferred them to the foundry in 8 to 12 weeks we give our clients their chips back ready for them to measure and evaluate.'
In 2008 EUROPRACTICE produced 534 application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) of which two thirds go to European universities and research groups and the rest to customers worldwide.
Another product developed by the EUROPRACTICE consortium will be onboard the Bepi/Columbo space probe mission to Mercury scheduled for 2020: the Planetary Ion Camera or PICAM, a 3,200 x 3,200-micron mass spectrometer whose mission is to inform scientists about chemicals circulating near Mercury.
EUROPRACTICE has also developed two pioneering medical procedures. VECTOR ('Versatile endoscopic capsule for gastrointestinal tumour recognition and therapy') used advanced microelectronic and micromechanical techniques to create a 'smart pill' with two electric motors that can move around inside a human body and take diagnostic pictures of anything that looks suspicious.
The consortium has also developed a type of permanent bio-electronic implant. EUROPRACTICE worked in partnership with Imperial College London, UK, and the University of Cyprus to create implants that use both micromechanical and microelectronic functions to help restore normal balance to people who suffer from ear dysfunctions.