For many years, AGH UST scientists and researchers have been involved in designing integrated circuits for the needs of high energy physics, imaging with the use of X-rays, and neurobiology. Among Polish universities, the AGH University of Science and Technology is an undisputed leader in designing integrated circuits. Achievements in this field have opened up opportunities for collaboration with the Japanese company Rigaku Corporation, which is a leading producer of modern equipment for testing the contents and structure of materials, as well as checking the quality of products by means of X-radiation. As a result, integrated circuits produced at AGH UST find application in devices that are sold all over the world, and this great success also bears fruit in many other areas.
Microelectronics, due to the use of highly advanced nanotechnologies, which enable the previously impossible miniaturisation and functionality of electronic devices, is one of the most dynamically developing branches of contemporary science, holding one of the top positions in the world economy. Its area of application covers not only technology, for example, the automotive industry, transportation, computer science, and telecommunications, but it is also present in medicine and biomedical engineering. The discipline also develops dynamically at AGH UST, where research into the design of integrated circuits is conducted by three faculties: the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Automatics, Computer Science and Biomedical Engineering, the Faculty of Physics and Applied Computer Science, and the Faculty of Computer Science, Electronics and Telecommunications. What follows from a report by Europractice, which supports the process of design and production of integrated circuits in Europe, among Polish universities, AGH UST is an undisputed leader in designing integrated circuits.
Number of integrated circuits designs sent into production through EUROPRACTICE:
The coordinator of research projects at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Automatics, Computer Science and Biomedical Engineering is professor Paweł Gryboś. Every year, the Microelectronics Team at the Department of Measurement and Electronics sends into production several designs of specialised integrated circuits, which also places AGH UST at the top position in Central and Eastern Europe. In the course of the last decade, the scientists published about 300 articles, including over 90 articles published in scientific journals from the ISI Master Journal List, and they also completed 15 projects financed by the National Science Centre, the National Centre for Research and Development, and the Ministry of Science and Higher Education, as well as 12 international projects, including 8 projects carried out jointly with industrial partners.
The Microelectronics Team from the AGH UST Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Automatics, Computer Science and Biomedical Engineering
One of the major activity areas of the team has been over 10-year-long collaboration with the Japanese company Rigaku Corporation, one of the most significant companies on the world scale, specialising in the production of high-class equipment for the needs of imaging with the use of X-radiation, for example, in spectrometric analysis or in tests that aim at examining the structure of materials. Such equipment is widely used, for example, by the pharmaceutical, chemical, electronic, and automotive industries. Rigaku Corporation has invariably been on the market since 1951, and its headquarters are Tokyo. The company employs about 1,400 people, who work in several divisions of the company all over the world, for example, in Japan, the United States, and Europe, including Wrocław, Poland, where the company has its branch Rigaku Oxford Diffraction.
For Rigaku Corporation, the scientists have designed several generations of integrated circuits, for example, the ultrafast chip RG64 for silicon strip detectors, or the integrated circuit PXD18k, composed of over 25 million transistors, for fast X-ray pixel cameras. On the basis of these integrated circuits and their successive generations, several products of global reach have been developed:
The Polish-Japanese collaboration started with the integrated circuit RG64, designed at AGH UST in 2007, which Rigaku Corporation installed in the detection modules D/tex Ultra, used in X-ray diffractometers. The integrated circuit RG64 was capable of counting photons faster than any other integrated circuit that was available on the market at that time.
“Launching the integrated circuit RG64 for the module D/tex Ultra shortened the measurement time by 100 times. It also enabled background reduction, as the circuit was able to select photons of precisely defined energies. Some photons have a different energy – it is a result of reflection, fluorescence processes, and it basically constitutes unwanted background,” explains professor Paweł Gryboś. “We also carry out this type of projects and research on integrated circuits for different kinds of experiments on synchrotrons in Western Europe, the United States, and Japan.”
A subsequent stage of collaboration with Rigaku Corporation was designing the structure of a two-dimensional hybrid pixel detector. The assumption was to design a detector that would be sensitive to X-radiation, one that would have a very high spatial resolution in two dimensions, and would be capable of counting the number of photons, e.g. ones of a determined energy, that hit a given pixel. Another important criterion was the speed of operation. A characteristic feature of such cameras is that they work in the mode of counting individual photons, not in an integrated mode. In traditional imaging, you can compare a pixel of a photo camera to a dish collecting rain water – in an integrated mode, drops of water are added to one another, and at the end of the measurement process, the final result describes the total amount of water in the dish. In the previously mentioned mode, the drops are counted separately one after another, and they can also be arranged according to their size. So, what is the conclusion? Pictures obtained in the mode of counting individual photons with the use of the AGH UST detectors are much more precise, an example of which can be X-ray photos with noticeable higher contrast or important details, which may be essential, for example, in medical diagnostics, security screening of luggage at airports, etc. A result of collaboration between AGH UST and Rigaku was an integrated circuit having a matrix of 18 thousand pixels, with an individual pixel having the dimensions of 100 x 100 micrometres. In an individual pixel, whose surface equals the size of the cross section of a human hair, there are about 1,400 transistors, which carry out complex analogue and digital operations in several tenths of nanoseconds. The circuit was able to count several million photons per second independently in each pixel. What is also important is the fact that the integrated circuit composed of several dozen millions of transistors is absolutely reliable. The invention has been tested at different synchrotrons in the United States and Japan. It turned out that it is resistant to harmful X-radiation, and as a result, modules composed of several to several dozen such integrated circuits are used in X-ray cameras, such as HyPix-3000 and HyPix-6000HE, offering users matrices containing several hundred thousand pixels and active surfaces of the size of several dozen square centimetres. Thanks to the solution, Rigaku has achieved great success due to the fact that the cameras the company offers are fast, and at the same time, they can reduce the unwanted background. Moreover, the cameras have a very high dynamic range of images, and are easily configurable.
What are the scientists currently working on? In the first place, they are working on the generations of integrated circuits that could, for example, be used in highly-demanding, new synchrotron experiments, as well as in medical imaging.
“We also begin to use this kind of integrated circuits in different types of synchrotrons. For example, the fastest circuits of this kind in the world can take photos with the speed of 20 thousand frames per second. When we use our integrated circuits, we can take pictures three times faster, and in some particular modes, we can record even 1 million frames per second. When this is the case, physicists, for example, can make better observation of various dynamic processes with the use of synchrotron radiation,” says professor Paweł Gryboś. “To different types of projects we apply very advanced technologies, e.g. nanometric or 3D technologies, where we vertically combine several layers of an integrated circuit of different functionalities with a sensor. In such circuits, pixels communicate with one another in real time, and images are compressed before they are sent from the pixel matrix. Currently, we also observe the development of a new research area, which is X-ray colour imaging. If it is successful, in the future it will be applied to medicine. In the case of radiation passing through a patient, we can see not only how much of the radiation goes through a particular area, but also how the energies of the radiation are arranged, which enables us to see the interior of a particular object. Currently, on the market there are already new generations of computer tomography scanners, although they are not offered for sale, and they are only located in large American institutes for the purpose of initial medical examinations.”
In April 2018, AGH UST had the honour to host a delegation from Japan. During the visit, Mr Hikaru Shimura, President and CEO of Rigaku Corporation, and the representatives of the company met with professor Tadeusz Słomka, AGH UST Rector.
The visit of the representatives of Rigaku Corporation in the AGH UST Rector’s Office
The AGH UST scientists and researchers really appreciate collaboration with Rigaku Corporation for many reasons. A result of the collaboration are several international patents, including patents obtained in the USA and Japan. On the basis of the developed and tested solutions, joint scientific articles are written. It is also worth noting that in the literature and publicity materials related to their products, Rigaku Corporation publishes information about the designer of the integrated circuits – which is not common practice in case of large corporations. Furthermore, AGH UST students and doctoral students can enjoy the opportunity to do practical training in research and development centres in Japan. Every year, at least two students take advantage of this opportunity, and in the years 2007-2017, more than 20 individuals were on work placements in Japan.
What is more, numerous successes create a domino effect. The intensive development of projects in the area of microelectronics was one of the reasons why in the course of the recent years, five researchers from the “Microelectronics Team” obtained post-doctoral qualifications, and in 2014, the faculty managed to launch a new field of study: Microelectronics in Technology and Medicine. It is worth noting that at AGH UST students design integrated circuits while they are still in the course of their studies, which is rare even at western universities. Moreover, great potential in the area of microelectronics has been spotted by other companies. For example, Cadence offers the scientists the latest generations of its sophisticated software, which is indispensable in the process of designing advanced integrated circuits, and National Instruments has awarded the AGH UST Department of Measurement and Electronics, as the only university centre in Europe, the certificate “Centre of Excellence”. The scientists have been awarded a distinction in the competition “15 kreatywnych w nauce” (English: 15 Creative Individuals in Science), organised by Brief magazine – for collaboration with Rigaku Corporation and the development of the two-dimensional X-ray camera, the AGH UST employees were invited by the Polish Embassy in Japan to present their inventions. Another challenge is the organisation of two combined prestige conferences in Krakow: the 49th European Solid-State Device Research Conference, and the 45th European Solid-State Circuits Conference, which will be held in Poland for the first time next year. A distinguishing feature of these conferences is the fact that they attract a large majority of university teams, research institutes and companies from Europe, the United States, and the Far East that deal with the most advanced devices, equipment, materials and technologies used by the microelectronic industry.
“The development of this branch of science requires that the integrated circuits designed by us and used in different measurement systems should be more and more precise, as well as faster and faster. At the same time, we need to be aware of the fact that at each stage of our work we move around in the area of extremely expensive technologies. A result of collaboration with Rigaku Corporation are new ideas for new research projects. Companies know business reality, they know what will be important in five years’ time, and in conducting scientific research it is important to invest in such a research area that will produce results after several years, not only in the form of publications, but also in the form of university-originated solutions that will enter global markets,” adds professor Paweł Gryboś.
All rights reserved © 2020 AGH University of Science and Technology