Imec celebrates its 40th anniversary in an era of chip nationalism

Misha Lu, DIGITIMES Asia, Taipei 0

Credit: Imec

Belgium-based semiconductor R&D institute, Interuniversity Micro-Electronics Center (Imec), celebrated its 40th anniversary on January 16th. A linchpin in the global semiconductor industry, Imec was founded in 1984 by a team led by Roger van Overstraeten, who studied engineering at the Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven) and later chaired the Department of Electrical Engineering there.

Celebrating the anniversary, Imec pointed out that one of the main obstacles facing the global semiconductor industry has been the demand for ever more advanced equipment and infrastructure to pursue the continuous miniaturization of microchips. In pursuit of the goal, Imec requires a large ecosystem of partners, from material and device suppliers to chip and end-product manufacturers, to support its R&D endeavors, and its need for a large number of laboratories, cleanrooms, and prototype equipment. To facilitate collaboration of such scale and complexity, Imec developed a unique pre-competitive collaboration model to share resources including equipment, intellectual property, and research personnel, spreading risks and costs in the process.

Notably, Imec pointed to two decisions that particularly shaped its trajectory: its investment in a 300mm cleanroom and the launch of its extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography program. The 300mm cleanroom, operational 24/7, enables R&D efforts based on a sub-7nm CMOS process. Additionally, Imec also operates a 200mm cleanroom in support of Imec's heterogeneous integration research. The facility also allows processing on non-silicon substrates, including III-V materials and organic semiconductors.

Apart from advanced logic scaling beyond 1nm and 3D integration, Imec's semiconductor research also explores new memory solutions. silicon photonics, neuromorphic circuits, quantum computing, and sustainable semiconductor technologies. Being on the spearhead of cutting-edge semiconductor research, however, also pushes Imec to the fore of a geopolitical competition rapidly rippling across the global technology industry.

Back in December 2022, Imec entered a cooperation with Rapidus, Japan's government-backed flagship project to bring the 2nm process into volume production by 2027. Imec has also become foundational to the European Union's own semiconductor industrial revival strategy. However, in an interview with Taiwan-based Media Central News Agency (CNA) back in June 2023, Imec CEO Luc Van den hove stressed that international cooperation and partnership had played a big part in the success of the semiconductor industry, calling attempts to control the entire semiconductor value chain "unrealistic."