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U.S. Develops New Tool to Design Faster Chips

The U.S. government is collaborating to create a new critical new tool for designing faster chips that transmit data using optical and electrical signals. These chips are vital components in fibre-optic networks and high-performance computing facilities. They are also used in laser-guided missiles, medical sensors, and other advanced technologies.

The research and development were carried out in collaboration with the Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and a partner company – a public-private partnership and a designated Manufacturing USA institute.

NIST will design electrical “calibration structures” that will be used to measure and test the electronic performance of photonic chips as part of the new collaboration. The company will also incorporate these calibration structures into its process design kit, tool engineers use when designing new chips for fabrication at AIM’s facilities.

The structure will result in better designs and a fourfold increase in the speed of photonic chip development. The photonic chip is typically operated at up to 25 gigahertz (GHz) speeds. In contrast, the new calibration structures will be capable of measuring chips at speeds of up to 110 gigahertz (GHz).

“This effort will draw on NIST’s expertise in chip measurements, calibration, and integrated device modelling,” said Laurie E. Locascio, Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology and NIST Director.

Even though planning for this effort began before the passage of the CHIPS Act, it is consistent with the act’s goals. “This demonstrates how the government and industry can collaborate to drive innovation and restore the United States’ global leadership in semiconductor manufacturing,” Locascio said.

The CHIPS and Science Act is a federal law in the United States that was passed by the 117th United States Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden on August 9, 2022. The act authorises approximately 280 billion dollars in new funding to boost domestic semiconductor research and manufacturing in the United States.

The Manufacturing USA institute assists in accelerating and commercialising new photonic chip manufacturing technologies. The institute, based in New York, offers small and medium-sized businesses and academic and government researchers access to expertise and fabrication facilities throughout the photonics development cycle, from design to fabrication and packaging.

Accurate measurements are critical to advancing high-speed communications, said the Chief Operating Officer of the company. He said the improvements give members and customers the resources they need to design the next generation of advanced photonic chips.

Both organisations’ experts are already hard at integrating the new measurement structures into the Manufacturing USA institute’s foundry process. An updated process design kit with the calibration structures should be available to users within a year.

Several efforts have been made in the United States to increase the speed of the semiconductor industry. Caltech engineers are designing an ultrahigh-speed data transfer chip in collaboration with the University of Southampton in England. The chip incorporates an electronics chip and a photonics chip, which transfers data using light. It took four years to complete the initial concept for the final lab test.

During the research, engineers attempted to find a way to increase processing speed while minimising heat generation. The solution was to design and optimise both electronics and a photonics chip. The chip is unique because it combines an electronic circuit required for data processing with a photonics chip, which is the most efficient piece for data transmission.

The integrated chip developed by Caltech and the University of Southampton increases electro-optical power efficiency by 3.6 times compared to current technology. This means it can transmit 100 gigabits per second and produces very little heat, generating only 2.4 pico-Joules per transmitted bit.

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