Frédéric Geissbuhler, CEO and Daniel Graf, Head of Business Development
The semiconductor industry is one of the few that have thrived in recent years, owing to the influx of innovative technologies. From the development of old high-power transistors like the famous “TO-3” case with very low (3mm x 3mm) die density to the more recent 2 nanometers (nm) designs, manufacturers have not only reduced the size of semiconductors drastically but have achieved far greater performance measures as well.
However, while these astounding accomplishments have pushed the boundaries of innovation in the semiconductor industry, information exchange still follows the same age-old practice where data is represented in the form of voltages (power on = logic 1, power off = logic 0). The underlying problem of using this technique is the significant loss of energy and performance. The conducting material in the ICT (Information and Communication Technology) systems needs to be charged entirely to transfer even a single electron from point A to B. A parallel can be drawn with the straw dilemma to further understand the drawbacks of present-day data transfer. Considering that an individual wanted to take out one drop of water using a straw, the entire straw had to be filled to extract that single drop. The ICT systems work on the same principle. Even though the electron carrying the information consumes only a minuscule amount of energy, charging the wires for data transport gobbles up an enormous amount of energy. Also, the longer the wire, the higher is the energy loss, as resistance plays a spoilsport for an unrestrained data flow inside the wires.
These drawbacks prompted a few scholars in the field of particle research — Prof. Ron Naaman, ErezHalahmi —at the Weizmann Institute of Science to deduce a methodology to transport electrons without using an electric or magnetic field. After years of research, they demonstrated data transport without any loss of energy along the transmission path, which led to the inception of Zero EC.
Today, Zero EC is disrupting the fundamentals of data transport with its patented technology that harnesses free electrons for high-performance data transfer with practically zero energy consumption. “Zero EC is the first company in history that has managed to guide free electrons without the need of an electric or magnetic field – even through bent connections – and has proven that there is no energy loss along the path,” states Daniel Graf, Head of Business Development, Zero EC. At its core, the innovation involves the ability to pass free electrons through a vacuum tube, demonstrated in various tests at the Weizmann Institute of Science.
An Idea with the Potential to Change the World
When first experiments successfully showed the ability to guide free electrons, the team behind Zero EC knew that this invention could change the ICT Industry forever. But to make that happen, several challenges had to be solved to get the invention out of a lab into a Semiconductor Product.
The initial challenge for the researchers was to find a tube material capable of guiding free electrons. The research led them to the idea of using a material with negative
electron affinity that can guide free electrons without applying electrical and magnetic fields. Subsequently, Zero EC, in partnership with the Fraunhofer Society, demonstrated that the technology could work with silicon. The company achieved proof of compatibility for the first chip on a large scale, which was an important milestone in proving the compatibility and viability of Zero EC technology for semiconductors.
The next challenge for Zero EC was to scale down the technology. Accordingly, the company collaborated with the Bar-llan Institute of Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials to produce the technology at a tiny scale with standard tools available in any semiconductor fabrication plant (fab). This showed that even at microscopic dimensions, the Zero EC technology was fab-compatible, with the benefits of transporting data at almost zero energy consumption. Exceeding the project goals, the fab-made prototype demonstrated a 5-micron channel diameter and an aspect ratio of 1:100, something that no other technology has been able to achieve so far.
Keeping up with Moore’s Law – enabling Chiplets
At this point the emerging technology had reached a level where discussions with international semiconductor producers started to showcase potential applications for the technology.
One of the most pressuring problems as of today is the “end of Moore’s Law”.
In 1965, Intel Co-Founder Gordon Moore predicted a steady, two-year cadence of chip improvements that would double a processor’s performance every couple of years. Since then, Moore’s law evolved into a shorthand definition for innovation at regular intervals and has been driving the computer processor manufacturing arena. But now, this development has almost come to a standstill with ever more transistors per unit area and the industry has shifted to improve performance by implementing more complex systems such as systemon-chip or advanced packaging. A key to improve the performance of these systems in the next years is to improve the interconnect bandwidth density and to reduce the energy and heat emitted in Interconnecting dies. This pressuring problem has become of such a strategic importance that that the industry already invests more than 10 billion USD annually to improve it.
Today, especially in advanced packaging semiconductor manufacturers aim for higher bandwidth density, larger package size, lower energy consumption, and smaller bump pitch. But the conventional copper wires fail to meet the manufacturers’ expectations, especially in high-end performance packaging. “Like everyone else, the interconnect industry simply needs more bandwidth in less space,” remarks Graf.
The enabler of Chiplets
To this end, Zero EC’s innovative first product Zero Voltage Reader (ZVR) - Interconnect uses electrons flowing in a vacuum instead of etched tracks or wires to address several challenges and opens up a new type of interconnect.
“The ZVR-Interconnect is a ground-breaking product that simplifies die-to-die interconnection offering several benefits other solutions cannot provide, e.g. by eliminating the need for bump pitches,” mentions Graf. “Besides, it’s easy to use, requires just minimal changes in the chip design and is expected to be cheaper than SI Interposer, while it offers way more performance.” The technology reads the voltage of a pad which replaces the solder bumps utilizing free electrons. It essentially creates a vacuum bridge between two points without the need to interconnect them. Additionally, the voltage reading also enables standardization of die-to-die communication as there is no need for direct contact between two dies.
The ZVR-Interconnect is a groundbreaking product that simplifies die-to-die interconnection by eliminating bump pitches
With its innovative product, Zero EC aspires to tackle existing and future challenges of chiplet design. Its modular concept enables interoperability and helps semiconductor producers to focus on chip design rather than interconnection technology. Also, ZVR-Interconnect delivers a bandwidth density of 10 Tbps/mm that can reach up to 100 Tbps/mm in less than ten years. Moreover, the solution can be an answer to green IT as it dramatically reduces energy consumption for die-to-die data transport, which will be set to practically zero within the next few years.
The Potential is Limitless
At the moment, Zero EC is developing products to help the ICT industry harness the true potential of its free electron technology and has filed for more than ten patents for the same. “We are currently concentrating on interconnects in 2.5D applications, which are mainly used in high-end performance packaging (cloud computing, data centers, among others),” informs Graf.
The company today has many applications in their drawer, ranging from applications in SoC, Advanced Packaging, IoT for AI chips, Image Sensors, High-Performance Computing and more.
“Every time we speak with Semiconductor Experts, we get more ideas and see more potential applications”, Graf states. The ZVR-Interconnect is an example which resulted of gaining an insight into the problems and challenges a fabless semiconductor manufacturer faced in interconnecting their chips. Zero EC could work out a concept that does not just solve the problem, but also provides a long-lasting scalable solution to increase bandwidth density over the coming years.
With its breakthrough technology, Zero EC won the ‘German Innovation Awards 2021,’ and the company is now on the quest of educating prospective clients on how its innovations can solve persisting problems of energy loss in data transport / interconnection. The enterprise also attends various conferences and even won first place in the Connecting Heterogeneous Systems Summit. Besides, with an established presence in Israel, Germany, and Switzerland, Zero EC has been virtually connecting with clients and partners all over the globe due to the COVID-19 pandemic-induced travel restrictions.
The company envisages a future of powerful smartphones, computers, and other devices that can run for weeks or even months without seeing a plug socket. It also aims for a cleaner environment by reducing the carbon footprint of data centers and supercomputers. And, to see this idea to fruition, Zero EC has been forming strategic partnerships and gaining potential investors that can lead them to develop more products using the free-electron movement. “We see our technology as a true game-changer that will lead us to a world where energy consumption in several major devices like microprocessors would become negligible,” concludes Graf.