Deep Tech Drives Semiconductor Sustainability

Imec’s Luc Van den hove suggests looking beyond PPA to take a device’s environmental footprint into account.


SEMI spoke with Luc Van den hove, president and CEO at Imec, about semiconductor sustainability, healthcare trends, and deep tech, and their implications for the semiconductor industry. Van den hove shared his views ahead of his keynote presentation at SEMI Industry Strategy Symposium Europe (ISS Europe), on May 30, 2022, in Brussels, Belgium.

Join us at the event to meet experts from Imec and many other key industry influencers. Registration is open.

SEMI: Why is sustainability important to you?

Luc Van den hove: To me, putting sustainability first is a question of taking up corporate responsibility. And that goes beyond our own processes. Imec is an R&D hub that plays a substantial part in shaping the deep-tech innovations of the future. We want to make sure that those innovations help meet the monumental challenges that humanity faces.

In a very concrete way, sustainability considerations guide our research: We’ve singled out eight of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals on which we think our disruptive innovations can have the greatest impact.

SEMI: In what way do you see disruptive innovations meet those monumental human challenges?

Van den hove: Let’s take a global challenge we’ve become all too familiar with: a pandemic. There are hopeful signs that SARS-CoV-2 is moving towards a more endemic stage. But we must stay vigilant for new variants. And in any case, scientists warn us that there’s an increasing chance of new – perhaps even more harmful – diseases cropping up. So let’s make sure that we’re better prepared, by leveraging the unique capabilities that semiconductor technology has to offer.

In that respect, I see two very promising avenues. The first is the continuous monitoring of viruses and bacteria. We can catch our known enemies early through rapid and affordable on-site testing – such as Imec’s breathalyzer PCR test concept that delivers results within 15 minutes. And we can quickly identify new risks through more rapid and routine sequencing and analyses of DNA – which can be accomplished through high-performance computing hardware and advanced AI.

Our second defense line against a pandemic is vaccine development. During the coronavirus pandemic, science already performed a miracle by fulfilling the complete process in just a few months. But we need to do even better. Through a combination of microfluidics, robotics, sensors, and AI, developing and producing a vaccine should become faster and cheaper. I even see a future where vaccines can be produced on-demand at the point of need.

SEMI: Is this what you mean when you say that medicine enters the digital era?

Van den hove: Yes. It’s amazing to think about: An mRNA vaccine is essentially a string of information that’s needed to build a certain protein. In other words, it’s a code. That’s a beautiful illustration of how we’re moving to an age in which the separation between biology and engineering – bits and molecules – almost disappears.

At all levels of the health system, data will become a crucial driver for better outcomes. We already talked about genome sequencing. But there’s also the patient information collected by physicians, and by wearable, implantable, and ingestible sensors. Combining all that information will lead to new insights and – often personalized – therapies. That’s also how I see the future of pharma: as a knowledge sector driven by data companies.

SEMI: Won’t the processing of those massive amounts of data put a lot of demand on the world’s compute infrastructure?

Van den hove: That’s indeed the biggest challenge we face. As I said, at Imec we believe deep tech has the potential to significantly contribute to sustainable progress – not just in health but also energy, education, climate, and so on. But only if the digital infrastructure is there to deliver the required performance at a minimal energy cost. Otherwise, we’ll soon reach a point where the earth’s available energy no longer covers the consumption of our digital technologies.

That’s the main reason why it’s important to have an aggressive semiconductor roadmap. To deliver on our promises to society, we need massive improvements in power, consumption, cost, and complexity. To be achieved by continued traditional scaling using completely new device architectures and new materials, such as 2D materials, but also a more extensive use of 3D integration and new computing paradigms.

And when it comes to developing new semiconductor manufacturing processes, we also have to look beyond power, performance, area, and cost – and take the environmental footprint into account. We need to minimize water consumption, electricity consumption, the use of PFC gases, CO2 emissions, and so on – from the very start of process development. It’s the goal of Imec’s SSTS program, which brings together various partners from the semiconductor ecosystem.

SEMI: We all know Imec is one of the main drivers behind the core semiconductor roadmap. But when it comes to deep tech and its role in addressing human progress, you see your role as broader than that, right?

Van den hove: One of Imec’s ambitions is to leverage our core semiconductor expertise to realize deep-tech innovations. We do this by co-innovating at the semiconductor technology, system, and application levels. And by leveraging expertise from other domains such as material science, biomedical, pharma, and AI. You know, the phenomenal growth of the semiconductor industry is in large part due to worldwide collaboration, often through precompetitive research on technology platforms. I think that’s a model that can work for other industries as well, leading to an acceleration of innovation.

SEMI: What are your wishes for the European semiconductor industry?

Van den hove: That we keep this collaborative attitude and even strengthen it. It’s the best way to ensure Europe’s position within our global industry. And at the same time to have a positive impact on our future. It’s one of the main reasons why an event where we can all meet in person, such as the SEMI Industry Strategy Symposium Europe, is such a great opportunity.

Luc Van den hove has served as president and CEO of Imec since July 1, 2009. Prior to that role, he was executive vice president and chief operating officer. He joined Imec in 1984, starting his research career in the field of silicide and interconnect technologies. In 1988, he became manager of Imec’s micro-patterning group (lithography and dry etching); in 1996, department director of unit process step R&D; and in 1998, vice president of the silicon process and device technology division. In January 2007, he was appointed as Imec EVP and COO. Van den hove received his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the KU Leuven, Belgium. He has authored or co-authored more than 200 publications and conference contributions.

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