Prof. Dr. Bernd Tillack: Innovative microelectronics for fast Internet

Microelectronics need to become evermore efficient and integrate an increasing number of functions – be it for fast processing of data in medical instruments or in everyday telecommunication. That is why research on efficient ­silicon-based systems, high-frequency circuits and technologies for a variety of applications is being conducted at the IHP – Innovations for High Performance Microelectronics

The Internet of the future is fast. Even today, people ex­­change language, data and multimedia content everywhere and at any given time. The “mobile Internet” allows us to check emails and call up livestreams in the networked world; the “Internet of Things” connects smartphones to devices in our surroundings. In future, fast wireless Internet will be able to solve the Internet coverage problem prevalent in rural areas, make traffic safer through the communication between vehicles, and create new ways through real-time transmission of extremely high-resolution images for medical applications.

Efficient microelectronics is required to turn this into reality. It has to be able, for example, to both generate extremely high frequencies for data transmission and sensors while keeping the use of energy very low. Silicon is the dominant material in microelectronics. We have not gained more experience with any other material and no other semiconductor has been invested in to such an extent. Ad­­ditional functions must be integrated into silicon in order to continue cost-efficient production.

Faster wireless data transmissions at very high frequencies. An increasing number of mobile users and significantly higher data rates require more efficient wireless networks. At the IHP – Innovations for High Performance Microelectronics in Frankfurt (Oder) researchers are working on high transmission rates for wireless systems. The goal is to reach 100 gigabyte and more per second, which is 30 times higher than the most efficient WLAN systems on the market today. This calls for entirely new solutions. Transmission volumes that high require, among other things, significantly higher transmission frequencies than the ones used today, which work at 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz.

The frequencies currently being researched at the IHP are between 60 GHz and 245 GHz. How­ever, very high frequencies are more difficult to manage technologi­cally. They are attenuated by air more strongly, which limits their range. Their properties are similar to those of light, which makes it more difficult to permeate obstacles and may result in shadowing. However, the imper­­meability of walls also has advantages, including the protection against eaves­­dropp­­ing, which is beneficial in the field of medical technology and for the wireless transmission of other sensitive data.

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Networks with short reaction times – the “tactile Internet”. But high data rates alone are not enough for many users. The “tactile Internet” is to allow for tactile and haptic sensory impressions through highest availability, reliability, and safety in the man-machine-communications. Also the interaction of machines is revolutionised by this professional infrastructure. The “tactile Internet” allows for mobile controlled intervention in the environment by people and ma­­chines through tactile real time. This requires short reaction times of one millisecond. But since even light travels only 300 kilometres in this time, there is a fundamental spatial restriction for the radius of these networks.

The so-called virtual reality is one of the attractive areas of application. Here multiple users can be connected physically with each other through simulation, to perform tasks together, which are demanding on a fine-motor level. Tasks for example in telesurgery or micro­­assembly and other application scenarios, which require great “touch” are made possible. IHP possesses excellent prerequisites to develop new solutions for this “tactile Internet” thanks to its years of experience with safe and reliable wireless networks.

Mobile laboratories for your health. New technologies and fast transmission rates are of great interest for various economic and social sectors, especially for the health sector. People already use fitness tracker, often in combination with apps for self optimisation, to monitor the status of their health. Telemedical procedures bridge the spatial distance between the patient and doctor. In future, lab-on-chip solutions will be able to complement diagnostics and therapy and ensure medical care. Labs-on-chip are mobile and connected to existing wireless networks. This way, for example, diagnostic data of a patient can be determined in the ambulance in case of an emergency and the results reach the hospital even before the patient arrives at the hospital.

With its expertise for highest frequencies, IHP is specifically working on a terahertz lab-on-chip. A solution like this one integrates laboratory functions on a silicon chip and uses signals for this in the THz range for sensors and data transmission. In order to implement this, mini­aturised and cost-efficient electronic solutions for generating THz signals have to be developed and functions for wireless transmitting and receiving of data, data processing and application-specific sensors have to be integrated.

Silicon photonics – electronics and photonics on one chip. Light plays a crucial role when it comes to fast processing and transmitting of extremely large data volumes over short distances. It is already transmitting data in fibre optic cables. The silicon photonics is particularly promising in microelectronics. Here, components for the transmitting and processing of light in silicon, which use existing equipment and technologies, are introduced. Additionally, electronics is used on the silicon chip to control the photonic components. IHP connects its extremely fast silicon germanium technology with photonics. Among long-term goals of the institute are ex­tremely efficient integrated silicon-photonic terabyte-­per-second systems. One terabyte per second equals one thousand billion bit, which corresponds to transmitting five complete movies in HD quality – per second.

IHP as an innovation driver. The IHP wants to take on a leading role in the world in the areas of fast silicon electronics, highest frequencies, wireless communication and silicon photonics. Its vertical structure allows for long-term and coordinated work in the field of basic research up to specific applications. In the pilot line of IHP with specialised high-performance technologies, industrially relevant demonstrators as a basis for innovative products are produced as the result of the research work. Along with wireless communication and medical technology, the services of the institute are also used in security, aerospace, automotive, and industrial automation.

IHP-11 Prof. Dr. Bernd Tillack
The author is the Scientific Director at IHP GmbH – Innovations for High Performance Microelectronics and professor for technology of silicon-based, integrated high-frequency circuits at the TU Berlin.