Case Studies: Supporting Electronics & next generation ICT


Almost every aspect of modern life is dependent on a secure and reliable communication network, from multimillion euro banking transactions to the transmission of vital patient information in emergency medical care. The ongoing miniaturisation and ever increasing operating speeds of electronic devices not only challenge current measurement capabilities, but also create a requirement to characterise new ICT technologies. This requires the metrology infrastructure to continue to develop to meet current and future needs for the next generation of electronics technologies.

Metrology for quantum communications

As quantum computing research efforts bear fruit, trust in the security of the existing digital economy will be undermined, as practical systems may be capable of quickly defeating common data encryption methods. Quantum cryptography systems could provide the next generation of data security, but implementations of these technologies can only be secure if discrete components are well understood, test methods agreed, and test facilities available.

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Future-proofing data security

If, as is forecast in the next decade or so, quantum computing is developed into a working technology, new encryption methods will be needed so electronic communications can be kept ‘quantum-safe’. In theory, Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) protocols could be used to defy all attempts at decryption, even by a quantum computer. However, unforeseen and undocumented behaviours of component technologies could leave security ‘backdoors’, rendering QKD systems potentially vulnerable to known hacking methods.

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Navigation, from phone-based maps to shipping routes, depends on global positioning satellites and their on-board atomic clocks. Several bulky clocks are installed in each satellite, so if one fails another can continue to provide reliable time keeping. This redundancy significantly increases launch costs. Europe’s satellite positioning system, Galileo, is spurring atomic clock innovations to create a new generation of smaller, more robust clocks with potential applications in other industries.

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Atomic timekeeping provides communication systems relaying information with very precise timestamping, and navigation systems with the ability to exactly pinpoint locations. The most accurate atomic clocks rely on expert staff maintaining complex operating conditions to ensure their performance. As applications requiring precise timekeeping increase, simpler yet highly accurate atomic clocks, suitable for use without expert supervision, are needed to supply the accuracy needed by industry and commerce.

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From banking to healthcare, data security is crucial to modern society. Quantum Key Distribution (QKD), which creates shared encryption keys using single photons, offers a level of security beyond that possible with classical communication techniques. To support the roll-out of this technology, new methods are required to precisely characterise the lasers and detectors used and ensure the performance of QKD systems.

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Single-photon detectors are the key component underpinning many new and emerging photonic technologies, including quantum communications, quantum computing and atmospheric sensing. To enable further developments in these fields and encourage more widespread adoption, measurements tools are needed which can validate the performance of single-photon detectors and provide confidence to end-users.

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From e-banking to social media, high quality satellite, fibre, and mobile communications are an essential part of modern life. As networks expand to meet rising demand, safety concerns over non-ionising radiation emitted by mobile phone base stations need to be addressed. One way to do so is to confirm that the power transmitted does not exceed regulatory limits. This requires reliable on-site measurements with robust links to SI units.

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Magnetic sensors are used in a range of applications that require high resolution data on an object’s direction and position, for example, orbiting satellites and safety systems in the automotive industry. Rapid developments in these fields require advanced sensors with significantly improved specifications, including resolution, reliability, and signal-to-noise ratio. To verify sensor specifications, users need to be able to accurately test, characterise and calibrate them.

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To stay competitive, electronics manufacturers are constantly developing smaller microchips, requiring greater manufacturing precision. Accurate measurement techniques for the nanoscale exist, but they are slow and unsuitable for manufacturing environments. Scatterometry offers fast nanoscale routine measurements, but lacks suitable reference materials. Developing new standards to link scatterometry to established measurement techniques will improve accuracy, supporting the development of smaller electronics.

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The precise production of geometric features on nano-electronic devices becomes more challenging as they get ever smaller. Scatterometry, which measures light scattering, could be a fast, simple technique for verifying that these features meet design, but it produces huge datasets, which are slow to process using current methods. A modelling technique, Finite Element Analysis, could provide faster calculations and make scatterometry measurements viable, but investigation and validation are needed.

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Lower costs and improved reliability in the manufacturing of thin films have enabled the development of a huge range of high-value technologies, from electronic displays to solar cells. However, many new thin-film technologies are highly sensitive to degradation from exposure to air and moisture, and improved measurement techniques are needed to support the cost-effective production of protective barrier layers and keep Europe at the forefront of this high-value sector.

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As electronics get ever smaller, detecting defects during quality control becomes more difficult. NSMM, a scanning microscopy technique, offers a new way to spot defects by measuring electromagnetic properties and has potential for investigating new materials for faster chips. For it to be viable for either of these, traceable calibration methods are needed so ultrafast electronics manufacturers’ have confidence in its use.

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Manufacturers of nano-materials, such as those used in semiconductors and solar cells, need accurate tools for quality control. Knowing precisely where on a sample’s surface measurements are being made and having confidence in the results achieved are key to reliably characterising material properties. Atomic force microscopy has great potential for use in material science but problems associated with extended measurement run times and instrument drift need to be overcome.

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The Swiss watch industry, worth 16 billion euro per year, is centred on the quality of precision micro-mechanisms, similar manufacturing techniques are also essential in the automotive and medical device industries. Product innovation to improve performance often involves new designs for ever smaller components. As parts shrink, confirming that nanoscale dimensions meet specifications requires improvements to measurement methods used for quality assurance.

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PTC thermistors are an important component in many electronic products, such as lithium-ion batteries, due to their ability to limit current and regulate temperature. However, these functions rely on the incorporation of well characterised self-heating materials in their design. Improvements to the metrology underpinning the characterisation of these materials will help the electronics industry manufacture existing products more efficiently and support the development of new products with improved performance.

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