"Turning an academic invention into a reality is our biggest challenge"
My name is Piers Tremlett and the I am the coordinator of the ZeroAMP project. My engineering specialism is packaging design and manufacturing engineering. I work at Microchip Technologies, Caldicot, which is near to Bristol, in the UK. However, I live 35 km to the north, in a rural region called the Forest of Dean, which has turned out to be good for living through a pandemic!
My degree was in Materials Science, and I moved into Electronics manufacturing shortly after leaving University. From then on, my career has been spent in microelectronics – initially as a manufacturing engineer, but moving on to get more involved into package design and process development for microelectronic packaging.
The ZeroAMP project followed on from a project funded by the UK government called NEMICA, in which the initial NEMS technology – namely a purely mechanical memory-bit – was developed and tested. Building on this groundbreaking result, Bristol University and Microchip went on to recruit other partners around Europe, to extend the technology developed in the NEMICA project and build a microprocessor with integrated non-volatile memory entirely based on mechanical relays. The big advantage of this approach is that a mechanical memory-bit consumes much less energy and is much more resistant to radiation and heat than one based on transistors. With this idea, we applied for a Horizon-2020 grant, which we won in 2019, and gave the project the name ZeroAMP because of the power capability of the technology.
The biggest challenge that the project faces is turning an academic invention into a reality. Two items within the project plan are of particular importance: creating more conductor layers to allow more complex NEMS structures, and a robust coating to enable the switches to have a longer lifetime. Both developments should help the technology along the path to its implementation in real-life applications, such as rugged memory and FPGAs, and wireless temperature measurement. We also aim to attract other application from areas that we hope will be drawn to the particular benefits of NEMS technology – in particular, its ability to work in low energy, high radiation levels and high temperatures environments.
The ability of NEMS switches to remain closed or open by Van der Waals forces enables them to have a zero sleep-current and a low operating energy consumption – they could be your friend in environment where energy is scarce. Additionally, their mechanical nature makes them immune from radiation and high-energy particles – very useful for memory. Unlike transistors, NEMS will also work at high temperatures because they are purely mechanical. This means that they will be excellent for data recording and for processing temperature measurements in situ. We expect this to be good for industrial IoT devices.
Actually no. It has been the project that introduced me to the Charles Babbage’s mechanical computer. It’s nice to think that we are re-inventing his concept of a mechanical computer, albeit on a much smaller scale!
Like all other tasks, the project has been affected by COVID-19 but we have coped well by our excellent team working around the issues. The team and the technology have made the project fun to work on despite the pandemic. However, I am looking forward to the time that we can all meet again in person, perhaps in the Autumn for our project review meeting.