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  • Global collaborations flow from a tiny corner of Western Europe

Photonics Spectra
Mar 2011
Lynn Savage, lynn.savage@photonics.com

LEUVEN, Belgium – From the heart of Belgium, Imec is a resource for fans of cross-disciplinary research and development. Founded in 1984, the nonprofit organization, which receives funding from the governments of Belgium and Flanders, explores and helps bring to market ideas and products built upon novel nanometer-scale electronic and photonic innovations. Although it has more than 1000 researchers on staff, it perhaps is better known for its collaborations with some 600 technology companies looking to improve their own products and ideas.

Based in Leuven, Imec has offices scattered around the globe. Its primary function is to build collaborative relationships with leading-edge companies in the semiconductor, medical, pharmaceutical and energy industries by offering access to research facilities that are designed to drive innovation. Its cleanroom facilities, for example, can be used for semiconductor fabrication ranging from solar photovoltaics to so-called silicon photonics.


Imec’s headquarters in Leuven, Belgium.


The company also helps its partners with technology transfer and licensing issues, and it offers them training, designing and prototyping services. On its own, however, Imec has spun off more than 30 for-profit companies based on its research efforts.

Its key components – called industrial affiliation programs – create and support joint research and development efforts involving staff at both Imec and the participating institution. Industrial partners include private and public companies as well as academic institutions and various European Union research projects and joint technology initiatives. Generally, any advances achieved in these partnerships that can be commercialized are co-owned by the company and Imec.

The most important aspect of what they do is to help their partners start from an application idea or system specifications and find a way to customize a technology to improve its speed, cost or other performance metric, according to Francesco Pessolano, the program manager of Imec’s display research program, NVision.

The technology closest to realizing its commercial potential is hyperspectral imaging, Pessolano said. He added that Imec already is in discussions with several companies that are interested in taking the technology to the product prototype phase.

The technology enables the capture of spectral information from an imaged target at every pixel of the sensor. This information adds layers of meaning to a standard image, increasing the capabilities of a machine vision system, for example, to identify faulty parts on a manufacturing line or diseased produce in a packing facility. A hyperspectral imaging system installed in a plane or helicopter could be used to find leaks in gas and oil pipelines as well. Imec’s perceived role is to build on laboratory successes in hyperspectral technology and help build better, market-ready hyperspectral cameras.

NVision also is working to develop a new generation of so-called smart lenses, devices that offer zooming ability using advanced micromirrors that keep the lenses tiny and lightweight. Optimally, according to the company, such lenses would replace the digital zooming features in cell phones with high-resolution optical zooming.

In addition, the program is working to create novel holographic display systems that could become the chief competition to stereographic 3-D televisions and similar entertainment equipment.


Imec’s NVision program specializes in advanced display technologies, such as holographic displays that will challenge stereoscopic 3-D television.


There are still a couple of technological hurdles to overcome, Pessolano said. One is that Imec must optimize its microelec-tromechanical systems (MEMS) technology to be able to scale it up to an economical level where large displays can be manufactured at a reasonable cost. The other obstacle, he said, is that holographic movies will require extremely large amounts of data. However, “the latter issue is not important until the first one is solved,” he said.

In January, Imec announced a new industrial affiliation program based on high-bandwidth optical input/output technology. Based on the company’s work with Ghent University in silicon photonics, the new program has a goal of finding and optimizing optical solutions for interconnecting CMOS chips. Ultimately, the technology should be able to exceed transmission speed of 100 terabits per second.

Researchers from both institutions use Imec’s CMOS processing tools to develop components that, if realized, will enable optical computing on a large scale. The technologies developed in this group also support optical telecommunications systems, sensors and medical devices.


Imec’s cleanroom facility, where next-generation photonics technologies are developed with industrial partners from around Europe.


The core facility for Imec’s silicon photonics research is its 56,000-sq-ft CMOS foundry, which can process 200-mm chips at 0.13 µm. The cleanroom operation runs continuously, seven days a week.In addition to its silicon photonics program, Imec also helps develop MEMS and nanoelectromechanical systems. It has worked on such applications as gyroscopes, cantilever arrays for scanning probe-based memory storage, and micro-mirrors.


GLOSSARY
hyperspectral imaging
Methods for identifying and mapping materials through spectroscopic remote sensing. Also called imaging spectroscopy; ultraspectral imaging.
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