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Introducing ZeroAMP’s member - Dinesh Pamunuwa

“The beauty of our approach is that nanomechanical switches complement more conventional solid-state technology and can be integrated in the same chip with transistors”

Could you please introduce yourself?

My name is Dinesh Pamunuwa and I am currently a Reader / Associate Professor at the University of Bristol. I am in the second year of a five-year senior-research fellowship sponsored by the Royal Academy of Engineering and Microchip. My area of expertise is next generation computation platforms, with a special focus on disruptive technologies. My prior work and intellectual property form the backbone of the ZeroAMP project.

What is your background?

I was born and grew up in Sri Lanka, and obtained a Bachelor’s in Electrical and Electronic Engineering from the University of Peradeniya in 1997. Afterwards, I obtained a PhD in Electronic System Design from KTH, Sweden in 2003, with a graduate internship at Berkeley Research Labs, Cadence Design Systems, Berkeley California. I was appointed as a Lecturer at Lancaster University in 2004, become Senior Lecturer and then moved as a Reader to University of Bristol in 2011.

You are one of the main initiators of the ZeroAMP project: can you give some background to how it started?

I first worked on using nanoelectromechanical relays as digital switches in lieu of transistors in an EU project called NEMIAC, which started in 2011. Afterwards, I set up several projects to further develop the basic idea of building processors entirely from nanomechanical switches. In these projects, working first with the University of Southampton, we achieved unprecedented cycling reliability by using nanocrystalline graphite as a coating on the switch contacts, and then, along with Southampton and KTH, we produced a new type of rotational nanoelectromechanical relay that can be used as a high-temperature and radiation-hard non-volatile memory device. We also produced a blueprint for how miniaturized large-scale nanomechanical processors can be produced. Microchip has supported my work in this area over several projects, and has a vision of how this technology can be turned into electronics for the Internet of Things (IoT) and other applications that require operation in harsh environmental conditions. In ZeroAMP we are pursuing zero standby-power, high-temperature, and radiation-hard electronics. In the consortium, each collaborator brings some unique expertise that is key to achieving this goal.

How have you coped with the challenges of starting a project heavily dependent on nanofabrication in the midst of a pandemic?

We had to deal with national lockdowns, labs being closed for extended periods and general slowdowns in supply chains, along with the rest of the world! We have coped by adjusting our work plans and been creative in starting activities such as design and simulation work early, while waiting for fabrication and characterization facilities to reopen. The collegiate spirit in the consortium has also greatly helped, as partners have been able to take advantage of facilities spread across multiple countries in the EU, which experienced the ups and downs of the pandemic at different times.

Is electronics turning full circle and going back to mechanical switches, abandoning solid-state transistors?

Not at all, and that is the beauty of our approach! The nanomechanical switches complement more conventional solid-state technology and can be integrated in the same chip with transistors. The semiconductor industry has coined the term “more-than-Moore”, to describe the regime beyond traditional scaling of the transistor size, which is hitting fundamental physical limits. Including more functionality than just processing, such as sensing and actuation functions and other technologies along with transistors in the same chip, is part of this approach. Paradigms such as the IoT have brought edge computing to the fore, where it makes sense to do processing at the edge of the network, perhaps responding to some local sensing event, or interpreting and transmitting the result rather than the raw data. Often, these nodes at the edge may need to run autonomously, entirely on scavenged energy. Our nanomechanical technology provides memory and computation with zero standby-power, while tolerating harsh environmental conditions much better than conventional transistors. Our integration approach provides for sensing, actuation and processing in the same chip, with NEMS alongside transistors where needed.

Do you have a favourite quote?

I have many, drawn from English poetry mostly, but I would like to offer up this quote by Bruce Springsteen: “The great challenge of adulthood is holding on to your idealism after you lose your innocence.”

This project has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 871740 (ZeroAMP).
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