12 Oct 2005   |   News

Demanding better automotive microchips

Partnerships: An EU project aims to design road-hardened microchips in a fast-changing market.

An EU project aims to design road-hardened microchips in a fast-changing market. The recently completed research project, involving Vienna University of Technology and ETH-Zurich, tackles a tough challenge in the high-tech world: developing a reliable and cost-effective process to design smart microchips that will be able to withstand the excessive heat and other tough road conditions of automobiles.

The project, begun with European Union funding, is now seeking a commercialisation partner, or barring that, investment from a large semiconductor company that could result in a spin-off firm.

It would be virtually impossible to start one of today’s automobiles without the help of semiconductor microchips. Indeed, the little devices have become so pervasive in cars that they control everything from ignition systems and mirror positions to navigation and even emerging mobile Internet systems.

But rapidly designing new microchips for more car features is becoming increasingly expensive. The DEMAND project aimed to develop a design process for “smart power” integrated circuits, a type of microchip also known as a system-on-a-chip. Such a chip combines a variety of functions onto one piece of silicon, which in turn can decrease the cost of making the chip and make it more reliable.

One key challenge is that such chips must be able to withstand high energy electrical impulses. The sudden pulses can create a massive surge in electrical current and a brief spike in temperature -- sometimes to as high as 1,000 degrees Celsius for a few hundredths of a nanosecond (less than a billionth of a second) – within the chip’s circuits. But that’s enough to cause the chip to malfunction or even to destroy it.

“These stresses can occur either when the car is in operation or during manufacturing,” said Dionyz Pogany, one of the partners in the DEMAND project from the Institute for Solid State Electronics and an associate professor at the Vienna University of Technology in Austria. The other partners are Infineon Technologies of Munich, ETH-Zürich, the University of Bologna and Synopsis of Switzerland.

The DEMAND project created a system that can predict and analyze the power spikes. The analysis, called transient interferometric mapping (TIM), uses an infrared technology to reveal exactly what is occurring on a chip when it gets a high current pulse. The researchers claim this is the first time such moving currents could be proven experimentally. Interferometry uses sound or light waves from two devices that are aimed at one target. The level of interference when they hit the target can be measured to tell what is happening on the chip during an energy spike, and ultimately, what remedies could be made in the design to make the chip more reliable.

DEMAND’s three goals are to improve microchip design methodology, create sharper analysis tools, and increase device reliability. So far the project has received about €1.8 million in funding from the EU for the instruments and other aspects of the project.

The project’s participants are developing more advanced models of the TIM technology, whose target market is the failure analysis departments in semiconductor companies. Currently the TIM instrument needs a lot of maintenance, and its price is high. That's because a key component, a semiconductor laser diode, is not yet available commercially. The group is researching alternatives, including combining cheaper laser diodes with a more sensitive camera, and it needs funding for that work as well, Pogany said.

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