Research: 2018 year in review
Quantum technology: Europe is banking on Grenoble
Grenoble-based research project QuCube won an ERC Synergy Grant of €14 million over six years to develop a quantum processor. The grant is evidence that Grenoble’s research and innovation ecosystem is gaining traction internationally.
Leti, INAC, and Institut Néel will receive €14 million from 2019 to 2024 to develop a quantum processor with at least a hundred physical qubits. The researchers could make the first-ever functional logic qubit and, in the process, achieve a major advance toward scaling up the technology.
Advances in basic science and technological breakthroughs
The researchers will have to overcome a number of obstacles. They will have to select the processor architecture, test qubit variability, come up with a process to correct quantum errors, and address heat dissipation. This will require advances in basic science and technological breakthroughs.
The three institutes put forward some convincing arguments to secure the grant. Institut Néel and INAC have been conducting basic research in quantum computing for fifteen years. Together, INAC, Leti, and Institut Néel have achieved several world firsts, the most recent of which was a 300 mm CMOS qubit.
More generally, however, it was the high quality of Grenoble’s research and innovation ecosystem and, especially, a proven track record building partnerships that span academic research and industry that tipped the balance. In the field of CMOS technology, Grenoble is home to strong, long-term partnerships and new partnerships are already being formed in the area of quantum computing. Most notably, the Grenoble-Alpes University Quantum Engineering project, which kicked off in 2017, will receive funding of €1.7 million over four years.
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Photosynthesis is better two by two
Artificial photosynthesis systems present a major shortcoming: Their photosensitizer delivers electrons one by one while the catalyst uses them two by two. A team of researchers from Grenoble and Germany* recently found a solution to this problem. They developed a ruthenium-based photosensitizer that stores two electrons and two protons reversibly, similar to the plastoquinones in living organisms.
It took the researchers three years to find a suitable structure and the optimal process for synthesizing it, and then characterize it. The pattern they selected is planar and consists of eight conjugated aromatic cycles. The next steps toward preparing the technology for future applications will be to improve the photosensitizer so that it can store more energy and test it for use in catalytic processes.
CEA forms joint lab with Singapore’s NTU
his summer, the CEA set up its first international joint lab with a university in Singapore. The SCARCE* lab has a total budget of €12.5 million over three years and will focus on the recycling and transformation of electronic waste. INAC, Leti, Liten, ICSM, and IRAMIS are just some of the partners involved in the project.
The SCARCE lab responds to a pressing need. Singapore, which is one of the most densely-populated places on earth with 5.7 million inhabitants in just 720 sq. km, has nowhere to put its electronic waste. The country has set an ambitious target of zero waste by 2030. To succeed, it will need to develop viable industrial-scale recycling and transformation processes.
Around fifteen CEA experts on the job
The CEA began working on the issue of what to do with nuclear waste very early on, and rapidly expanded its research to many other types of industrial waste. The organization has earned recognition as one of the world’s leading centers for expertise in hydrometallurgy. The CEA’s programs encompass sorting, lixiviation, separation, liquid-liquid and liquid-solid extraction, and other processes. SCARCE will benefit directly from the CEA’s know how. Around fifteen CEA experts (from the organization’s DEN, DRT, and DRF divisions) will travel to Singapore to conduct research at the lab. For example, Leti imaging specialists will apply their knowledge to materials recognition for recycling. The joint lab will be run by Jean-Christophe Gabriel for the CEA; Gabriel has already left to spend one year on site in Singapore. Until recently, Gabriel was the head of the ERC REECYCLE lab, which had been hosted at INAC and was transferred to IRAMIS in August. The lab will focus on four areas: lithium-ion batteries, silicon-based solar panels, printed circuits from consumer electronics, and plastics containing toxic substances like brominated flame retardants.
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Quantum bits: SOI nanowires open up new possibility
A new step forward toward tomorrow’s quantum computers has been made. Researchers from INAC and Leti demonstrated that the spin of an electron confined in a silicon-on-insulator (SOI) nanowire can be manipulated by an electric—rather than a magnetic—field. Controlling spin using electric fields generated by grids is a standard microelectronics-industry technology. Australian and American researchers had previously predicted a tenuous effect of the electric field on electron spin, in the vicinity of a crystal step at the silicon-silicon oxide interface. The Grenoble-based researchers confined the electrons in the edges of rectangular silicon nanowires, producing the asymmetry necessary to couple the spin and electric field. A patent application for the phenomenon, called EDSR*, is currently pending.
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Choosing the best LiDAR for autonomous vehicles
Autonomous vehicle stakeholders are banking on LiDAR* to perceive objects in the environment in real time. However, there are currently no standards for LiDAR sensors and their performance can vary wildly, making them incompatible with the requirements of the target applications. Transdev, a major public transportation operator, turned to Leti and IRT Nanoelec to evaluate six commercially-available products in real-world conditions. The evaluation was completed this summer. The researchers took measurements in all weather conditions and in the presence of various roadway “objects” like other vehicles and road signs. Because autonomous vehicles are equipped with several LiDAR and other sensors, the researchers evaluated the products individually and together. Transdev now has comprehensive data to make the best LiDAR choices for its future autonomous buses and tramways.
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Spin waves detected in CMOS-compatible materials
Could spin waves have a future in tomorrow’s ultra-miniaturized CMOS-alternative systems? Until now it was clear that manipulating spin waves required the use of materials not compatible with silicon technologies. In addition, controlling and detecting spin waves entailed using techniques that cannot be miniaturized. Researchers from INAC recently overcame several of these hurdles. The researchers successfully generated, propagated, and detected spin waves with wavelengths of up to 150 nm in waveguides fabricated from STT-RAM memory materials. The thicknesses of the very thin layers in the stacks were carefully chosen to enable propagation with very low attenuation. Detection leveraged the inverse spin Hall effect, which is compatible with ultra-miniaturization. The findings were published in Nanoletters.
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Progress toward less toxic, more affordable hydrogen photosynthesis
Researchers at INAC and Grenoble-Alpes University recently demonstrated that it is possible to efficiently produce hydrogen using artificial photosynthesis in solution without the need for toxic, expensive photosensitizing agents. The researchers used nanocrystals with a copper sulfide and indium core protected by a zinc and sulfur shell, plus a cobalt-based molecular catalyst.
They produced hydrogen more efficiently than with ruthenium-based photosensitizers (the leading type used for this purpose). Furthermore, the inorganic materials used can be recycled several times without any notable loss of activity. The research is ongoing to obtain the same reaction with even cheaper materials.
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MRAM: Microelectronics industry adopts spintronics
The world’s leading foundries—including Samsung, TSMC, and GlobalFoundries—announced early this year that they would be starting volume manufacturing of MRAM memory, marking a major milestone. Among MRAM’s many benefits: It costs less to manufacture than embedded flash memory, is extremely energy efficient, and offers high communication speeds and a virtually-infinite number of cycles.
Spintec’s research was a big contributor to this major step forward. According to a 2016 study by the CEA Documentation and Marketing Research Department, the lab’s research is at the international state of the art. Spintec has filed key patents on perpendicular magnetic anisotropy at transition metal/oxide interfaces (2006, 2008), spin-orbit couple (2010), and MRAM with perpendicular shape anisotropy (2017). Spintec’s advances are helping shape tomorrow’s MRAM technologies today!
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Silicon photonics aiming for terabit-per-second speeds
Back in 2009 Mina-News predicted that photons would be used to build logic gates. While that particular application for photonics has since been abandoned, Leti’s silicon photonics research has continued to expand. Today, researchers are focusing on the very-high-speed communications requirements of datacenters and supercomputers. With photonics components, data transfer speeds could reach up to 400 gigabits—or even a terabit—per second.
Around 50 Leti researchers are working on the topic for partners like STMicroelectronics, HP, III–V Lab, and IRT Nanoelec. They are developing laser sources, photodetectors, waveguides, multiplexers, and switches. Silicon photonics is one of the rare fields where Europe is leading the world in terms of technology. As for potential customers, they are found around the globe!
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Twist straintronics could give graphene new properties
In graphene monolayers electrons behave as if they do not have any mass, giving the material its exceptional electronic properties. In bilayer graphene, however, these qualities can be substantially altered. Until now, these effects had been controlled mainly by adjusting the “twist” between the layers. A team of researchers from Grenoble-Alpes University, INAC, and Institut Néel in conjunction with Cergy-Pontoise University showed that straining one layer more than another is a very effective way to adjust the stack’s electronic properties.
Combining strain and twist could give 2D material stacks new properties like superconductivity. Twist straintronics could very well be the next form of materials engineering!
Pixcurve image sensor: microelectronics free from planar sensors
In February Leti presented a functional prototype of an 11 mm x 7 mm CMOS image sensor whose unique feature is that it is curved. The innovation could lead to a spectacular reduction in the size and complexity of lenses. It also opens the door to a whole new breed of microelectronics where the flat format will no longer be the norm.
The Pixcurve sensor was made from a commercially-available image sensor that was thinned from 725 microns to less than 100 microns. The thinned sensor is flexible enough to be curved, with a curve radius of 65 millimeters. The curved sensor fits perfectly into a conventional package for planar sensors.
Standard processes combined with unique know-how
The curved sensor is fabricated using standard CMOS dicing, thinning, and packaging processes. However, orchestrating the processes required substantial R&D that led to seven patents.
So, why make a curved sensor? Mainly because camera lenses are also curved. A curved sensor combined with curved lenses minimizes the need for optical correction. At the Photonics West trade show held in the US earlier this year, Leti demonstrated that the same image quality could be obtained with a 24-mm lens for a curved sensor as with a 60-mm lens for a planar sensor.
For 30 years, the level of precision and complexity of fabrication processes has meant that flat sensors were the only option. Pixcurve has changed all that with an innovation that will challenge the “flat” world of microelectronics and better meet the needs of the equipment that uses the sensors.
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Regenerbone bone reconstruction project could lead to startup
The team of researchers led by Catherine Picart at LMGP* recently began work on Regenerbone, an ERC Proof of Concept project with a grant of €150,000. The eighteen-month project will build on prior research on bone defect repair using an osteoinductive film. The new research will also address regulatory issues, raw-materials supply, and the business plan for a future startup.
Compared to bone grafts, whose use is limited to defects that are small in size, the osteoinductive material can be placed on a cylindrical implant to reconstitute bone fragments. It can be placed on implants made from titanium or PEEK polymer, two materials commonly used in bone surgery. LMGP has been developing the films for nine years and has published fourteen articles and obtained three patents to date.
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Chipless RFID tag wins €2 million European Research Council Consolidator Grant
Etienne Perret, a faculty member at Grenoble Institute of Technology and a research scientist at LCIS, an FMNT lab based in Valence, has just won a €2 million European Research Council Consolidator Grant for his chipless RFID tags.
The grant will allow Perret to hire PhD candidates and post-docs and purchase antenna characterization equipment. The bar-code-sized tags are printed with conductive ink. The target properties and cost price are situated somewhere between barcode and conventional RFID tag technologies. The chipless tags have been in development for eight years and are protected by two patents.
Erasable, rewritable tags can be read at 30 cm
Because the tags can be read at distances of up to 30 cm—even through opaque objects—using an ultra-wideband technology, the physical appearance of the item tagged is not altered in any way. But the lab does not plan to stop there. The new features on the drawing board include totally erasable tags—an advantage for RFID, which is sometimes criticized for making it possible to monitor consumers. The tags will also be rewritable, something that barcodes cannot offer. And, by adding silicon nanowires, the tags will be able to serve as low-cost temperature and/or humidity sensors. Another, longer-term possibility will be the capacity to recognize movements or actions to serve as an interface between a user and a machine. A company interested in the tags is already working with the researchers. A startup has also been created to scale the technology up for manufacturing and commercialize the product.
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Why nanowire beats thin film for piezoelectric potential
Why would a semiconductor material like zinc oxide (ZnO) offer better piezoelectric properties in nanowire form than as a thin film? Researchers at IMEP-LaHC have come up with an explanation. The tip and sides of the nanowire trap the Fermi level, repelling the free carriers in the material, thus eliminating the typical piezoelectric screening effect. The researchers conducted simulations combining mechanical, piezoelectric, and semiconductor properties to arrive at their conclusion, which also explains other laboratory observations, which, until now, had never been demonstrated theoretically. For IMEP-LaHC, which designs piezoelectric components, the potential applications for the research include mechanical sensors and energy harvesting devices.
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