Semiconductors, at the heart of technology

Driving Europe’s chip industry

Semiconductors are crystalline materials with an electrical conductivity midway between that of conductors and insulators. This property makes them very useful in the manufacture of precision electronic devices such as diodes, transistors, solar cells and sensors. They are essential components in the manufacture of mobile phones, computers, domestic appliances, vehicles and medical devices. They are also at the heart of the latest technological advances, such as 5G, artificial intelligence, autonomous driving and the Internet of Things.

Today, the world’s largest and most advanced semiconductor companies are based in Taiwan, South Korea and the United States, countries that lead the world in the production of chips for a wide range of electronic devices. Dependence on these markets has been underscored by the supply crisis of recent years, driven by growing demand for electronic devices and the disruption of the global supply chain as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This situation has highlighted the need for Europe to develop its own semiconductor industry. Of the trillion microchips produced worldwide in 2020, only 10% were made in Europe. The aim is to double this percentage by 2030 to meet growing industry demand. To achieve this goal, the European Union is moving forward with the European Chip Act, which addresses the semiconductor shortage and aims to strengthen Europe’s technological leadership in this strategic area.

In the same vein, the Strategic Project for the Recovery and Economic Transformation of Microelectronics and Semiconductors (PERTE Chip), promoted by the Spanish government, will invest €12.25 billion until 2027 to strengthen Spain’s semiconductor design and production capabilities, promoting national and EU autonomy in the sector.

For its part, in addition to promoting the Catalan Semiconductor and Chip Alliance to lead chip development in southern Europe, Catalonia participates in the European Alliance of Regions on Semiconductors, which comprises 13 European regions working to promote the growth and competitiveness of the semiconductor industry through the exchange of knowledge and best practices, based on cooperation between regions.  

Semiconductors are essential components in the development of key technologies for a wide range of applications, from mobile telephony and computers to the automotive industry and healthcare devices. Catalonia is positioning itself as one of the most dynamic environments in southern Europe in this field, a context to which the UPC contributes with cutting-edge facilities and several research groups that are working on the technology and design of highly advanced and efficient chips, microprocessors and other systems.

A researcher working in the UPC’s Clean Room

A researcher working in the UPC’s Clean Room

Selfie of the Perseverance rover on the surface of Mars, taken by the vehicle last January. The rover’s wind sensor contains 60 silicon microchips manufactured at the UPC. Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Selfie of the Perseverance rover on the surface of Mars, taken by the vehicle last January. The rover’s wind sensor contains 60 silicon microchips manufactured at the UPC. Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Silicon wafer with microchips developed at the UPC

Silicon wafer with microchips developed at the UPC

The semiconductor ecosystem in Catalonia, a sector that is in a phase of development, comprises around a hundred companies and research entities and some 4,400 professionals. Companies such as Cisco, Monolithic Power Systems (MPS) and Intel have chosen Barcelona as the location for their microchip design centres, and another twenty or so foreign investment projects are expected to follow in the next few years.

Jun 28, 2023

The semiconductor ecosystem in Catalonia has a hundred companies and research organizations and around 4,400 professionals, a sector that is in the development phase. Companies such as Cisco, Monolitic Power Systems (MPS) and Intel have chosen Barcelona to locate their microchip design centers, and it is expected that twenty more foreign investment projects will join in the coming years.

As a leading university in research and technology transfer, the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya - BarcelonaTech (UPC) is one of the entities heading this innovation hub. Together with the Barcelona Supercomputing Center–Centro Nacional de Supercomputación (BSC-CNS), the Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO), and other research system actors and companies, the UPC is a member of the Semiconductor and Chip Alliance of Catalonia, a public-private initiative recently launched by the Government of Catalonia to strengthen the ecosystem and boost industrialisation of chips and semiconductors.

The UPC also promotes synergies with the business fabric to contribute to the development and advanced production of technologies for use in the semiconductor industry. One example is the technology company Qorvo, Inc. After more than a decade of collaboration with the Components and Systems for Communications (CSC) research group, which is attached to the Castelldefels School of Telecommunications and Aerospace Engineering (EETAC), the American company has set up a facility in the K2M building on the North Diagonal Campus with the goal of intensifying its collaboration with UPC researchers and scouting for talent.

At the forefront of technology
Semiconductor research is evolving around the world, with the development of new technologies and applications that will have a major impact on the future: from new lithography techniques to make more advanced chips, to innovative transistor technologies to improve the energy efficiency and performance of devices.

An example of the UPC’s potential in this field can be found in space—specifically on Mars. On 18 February 2021, the Perseverance rover landed in the Jezero crater on the red planet as part of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission. The technology incorporated in the rover includes a wind sensor with 60 silicon microchips, developed by members of the Micro and Nanotechnologies/Solar Energy Research Group (MNT-Solar), which is attached to the Barcelona School of Telecommunications Engineering (ETSETB) of the UPC. The data collected by the sensor, along with other inputs, will be used to analyse the habitability of Mars and prepare for future human exploration of the planet.

Another area of research pursued by the MNT-Solar research group is photovoltaic solar energy. In this area, the group has developed silicon solar cells with an efficiency of 22% (capable of generating 220 watts of energy for every 1,000 watts of energy from the sun), the highest efficiency achieved in Spain for this type of device. In this field, the group is also studying thermo-photovoltaic energy applications, which use heat to generate electricity through solar cells.

Innovative research projects like these can be carried out thanks to facilities such as the Clean Room, a pioneering space located on the North Diagonal Campus that is one of the first of its kind in Spain, in operation since 1985. The equipment available at the facility enables the manufacture of devices down to one micron, 50 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. It includes equipment for optical lithography, thin film deposition and characterisation, as well as high-temperature furnaces and a mechanical workshop.

The Photovoltaic Laboratory at the Diagonal Besòs Campus is another UPC space where highly disruptive research is being carried out. At this facility, researcher Edgardo Saucedo, a member of the MNT-Solar research group and a professor at the Barcelona East School of Engineering (EEBE), is studying new materials to improve the properties of semiconductors, in particular low-dimensional chalcohalides for integration into advanced photovoltaic devices such as high-efficiency solar cells. To support this research, carried out within the framework of the SENSATE project, Saucedo has been awarded an ICREA Acadèmia grant and a Consolidator Grant from the European Research Council (ERC).

Bio-inspired microelectronic solutions

The chips of the future will function like digital neurons, with a design inspired by the brain’s neural networks and processing methods—a paradigm shift that opens the door to advanced technologies with multiple applications. In biomedicine, for example, it will be possible to integrate multiple treatments into a single artificially intelligent pill, or to design biomedical prostheses to replace a damaged neuronal function or enhance memory or other abilities.

With over 30 years of experience in microelectronics design, the members of the Intelligent Sensors and Integrated Systems (IS2) research group are working on bio-inspired and neuromorphic solutions along these lines to tackle machine learning problems. The researchers have developed solutions such as general purpose and bio-inspired configurable embedded systems (SoCs), specialised microprocessors, and industrial and biomedical solutions based on machine learning.

Microelectronic prototypes that mimic the behaviour of biological neural subsystems, in particular neuronal cultures, are also being developed. Within the framework of the national SENSEDGE project, work is being done on the large-scale integration of chips of this kind based on the interaction between biological neuronal cultures and microelectronic neural networks. This research will contribute to a better understanding of the complexity of how biological neurons work and to the development of biomedical prostheses. The group is collaborating with researchers from the University of Barcelona (UB), the Instituto Superior Técnico (IST) in Lisbon, Portugal, and the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Sweden.

The future of technology also lies in the miniaturisation of systems-on-chips, a process that makes it possible to save space, energy and resources. The IS2 group has succeeded in integrating micromechanical sensors (MEMS) with microelectronic circuits on a single silicon chip, taking advantage of the materials and interconnect layers of standard microelectronic chips. This technology, which is the subject of a licensed international patent, reduces size, power consumption and interference, opening the way to advanced applications for the Internet of Things (IoT) and biomedicine. Another focus of the group’s microelectronics research is the design of ultra-low power integrated circuits using photonic energy.

In collaboration with Huawei researchers in Germany, advanced information processing and communication management systems are also being developed for future assisted driving architectures.

Advanced computing chips and alternative materials
Semiconductors are essential for the production of processors and other electronic components used in supercomputers, which have a key role to play in tackling the great societal and technological challenges of today and tomorrow. The scientific challenge is to design more advanced chips in order to perform calculations and process data faster, more securely and more efficiently.

This is the aim of the emerging technologies partnership Designing RISC-V-Based Accelerators for Next-Generation Computers (DRAC), a consortium led by the BSC with the participation of members of the UPC’s Efficient and Robust Integrated Circuits and Systems (EFRICS) research group. The project also involves the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB), the University of Barcelona (UB), the Rovira i Virgili University (URV) and the Barcelona Institute of Microelectronics (IMB-CNM).

Three years of work have led to the development of a general-purpose processor with accelerators based on RISC-V technology for use in next-generation computers. Specifically, four chips have been created and are the first open-source chips to be manufactured in Spain. The last of these is one of the most complex and advanced chips created in an academic setting. Its most notable feature is the integration of four accelerators that enable high-performance calculations in the fields of cryptography, genomic analysis and autonomous navigation, with significant advances in these areas.

In addition to developing conventional integrated circuits, the EFRICS research group is investigating emerging materials as alternatives to existing semiconductors. To this end, they are working on the design of bio-inspired circuits that mimic the process of neuronal synapses and will improve the speed and efficiency of electronic devices.

The group is proposing new memory and computing systems beyond silicon, such as carbon nanotube (CNT) technology, 2D materials, memristors and graphene transistors, with an emphasis on reliability. New applications—such as neuromorphic systems, in-memory processing and unconventional computing in general—are also being explored.

The EFRICS group is also working with researchers from the UB and the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) on a project to design radio-frequency circuits for radio communications, applied to radiation detectors.

Specialisation in chip and semiconductor design
Thanks to the projects being pursued by its research groups, the UPC is at the forefront of cutting-edge research, not only in the field of conventional semiconductors, but also in the design of emerging materials and bio-inspired chips that will enable the technology of the future. One hundred and fifty researchers in 14 research groups contribute to various fields related to semiconductors, including transport, energy, telecommunication networks and computing. This innovation ecosystem, which involves the collaboration of several companies in different sectors, has led to the creation of several spin-offs and deep-tech companies that have grown into small multinationals.

The UPC also offers specific training in the field of semiconductors to provide the business sector with specialised professionals. For example, the master’s degree in Electronic Engineering (MEE), a benchmark in the field in Spain, has two specialisations related to chip technology and design. Students who complete the master’s degree can continue their training by undertaking specialised research in a doctoral programme, within the framework of one of the groups working in this field, and graduates are often recruited for senior positions with companies in the sector.