Engineering researchers from the University of Florida (UF) and Texas Instruments (TI) (NYSE: TXN) have crafted the world’s highest frequency circuit made with a common type of semiconductor transistor, a step that could slash the price of detectors useful in medicine, environmental monitoring and military applications. The breakthrough was presented by University of Florida and TI engineers Wednesday at the International Solid State Circuits Conference in San Francisco.
Ken O, a UF professor of electrical and computer engineering and the lead researcher on the project, said his team had demonstrated a 410 gigahertz (GHz) circuit using complementary metal oxide silicon (CMOS) technology – the technology used to make many of the components in personal computers, cell phones and handheld electronic devices.
Measured in a UF laboratory using a circuit equipped with a tiny on-chip antenna the size of a pen tip, 410 GHz eclipses the previous record for CMOS circuits set in February 2006 by 200 GHz. More important, it is around 60 GHz higher than the previous record set using alternative but more expensive indium phosphide technology. TI’s advanced manufacturing technology, known as the 45-nanometer (nm) CMOS process, serves as the foundation for the new circuit.
“This is probably the first time in 30 years that a silicon based circuit has been shown to have a higher operating frequency than one based on indium phosphide and similar compounds,” O said. “This is exciting because if you can build chips based on these circuits, then you can build inexpensive detection and imaging systems for a range of applications. The result could reduce the cost for these systems by a factor of 100 or more.”
Ultra-high frequency circuits have been created in the past, but only with exotic materials that are costly to manufacture. CMOS, by contrast, is the standard process used to make the majority of the chips in the integrated circuit industry, therefore opening the door for widespread manufacture and distribution of the high-frequency chips.
“There is a very rich applications space that is available, but nobody has been able to get there in the high volume sense,” O says. “By leveraging Texas Instruments’ advanced process technology for manufacturing this circuit, the University of Florida and TI demonstrate that through CMOS there is real possibility we will be able to do it in the next five years.”
These applications include, for example, always-on environmental monitoring equipment acutely sensitive to pollution, noxious gases or bioterrorism agents. In imaging, high-frequency chips make possible techniques that can penetrate clothing to “see” hidden weapons or plastic explosives. The circuit could also be used in chips for medical equipment that could facilitate early detection of skin and other cancers, and in industrial systems that monitor the coatings on pills to ensure they have the proper thickness and uniformity.
The other authors of the paper that is the source of Wednesday’s announcement are Eun-Young Seok, Changhua Cao, Dongha Shim, Daniel Arenas and David Tanner, all of the University of Florida, and Chih-Ming Hung of TI.
“University research is critical for moving the technology industry forward, and Texas Instruments is proud to be part of University of Florida’s ground-breaking work,” said Bill Krenik, chief technology officer of TI’s wireless terminals business unit. “By leveraging the high performance and low power consumption that CMOS process technology delivers, the circuit demonstrates very compelling results that hold great potential for chips targeted at future safety, medical and environmental applications.”
The circuit was demonstrated on TI’s low power 45-nm process technology. The process includes a number of techniques to deliver cost-effective multi-million transistor, system-on-chip processors with the performance and lower power consumption required for processing advanced applications. While designed to extend battery life and energy efficiency in portable products, the technology also offers the performance to handle advanced multimedia functionality in a tightly integrated design.