Tag Archives: letter-mems-tech

Most lasers have only one color. All the photons it emits have exactly the same wavelength. However, there are also lasers whose light is more complicated. If it consists of many different frequencies, with equal intervals in between, just like the teeth of a comb, it is referred to as a “frequency comb”. Frequency combs are perfect for detecting a variety of chemical substances.

At TU Wien (Vienna), this special type of laser light is now used to enable chemical analysis on tiny spaces – it is a millimeter-format chemistry lab. With this new patent-pending technology, frequency combs can be created on a single chip in a very simple and robust manner. This work has now been presented in the journal “Nature Photonics“.

A comb with a Nobel Prize

Frequency combs have been around for years. In 2005, the Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded for this. “The exciting thing about them is that it is relatively easy to build a spectrometer with two frequency combs,” explains Benedikt Schwarz, who heads the research project. “It is possible to make use of beats between different frequencies, similar to those that occur in acoustics, if you listen to two different tones with similar frequency. We use this new method, because it does not require any moving parts and allows us to develop a miniature chemistry lab on a millimetre scale.”

At the Vienna University of Technology, frequency combs are produced with quantum cascade lasers. These special lasers are semiconductor structures that consist of many different layers. When electrical current is sent through the structure, the laser emits light in the infrared range. The properties of the light can be controlled by tuning the geometry of the layer structure.

“With the help of an electrical signal of a specific frequency, we can control our quantum cascade lasers and make them emit a series of light frequencies, which are all coupled together,” says Johannes Hillbrand, first author of the publication. The phenomenon is reminiscent of swings on a rocking frame – instead of pushing individual swings, one can make the scaffolding wobble at the right frequency, causing all the swings to oscillate in certain coupled patterns. “The big advantage of our technology is the robustness of the frequency comb,” says Benedikt Schwarz. Without this technique, the lasers are extremely sensitive to disturbances, which are unavoidable outside the lab – such as temperature fluctuations, or reflections that send some of the light back into the laser. “Our technology can be realized with very little effort and is therefore perfect for practical applications even in difficult environments. Basically, the components we need can be found in every mobile phone”, says Schwarz.

The molecular fingerprint

The fact that the quantum cascade laser generates a frequency comb in the infrared range is crucial, because many of the most important molecules can best be detected by light in this frequency range. “Various air pollutants, but also biomolecules, which play an important role in medical diagnostics, absorb very specific infrared light frequencies. This is often referred to as the optical fingerprint of the molecule, “explains Johannes Hillbrand. “So, when we measure, which infrared frequencies are absorbed by a gas sample, we can tell exactly which substances it contains.”

Measurements in the microchip

“Because of its robustness, our system has a decisive advantage over all other frequency comb technologies: it can be easily miniaturized,” says Benedikt Schwarz. “We do not need lens systems, no moving parts and no optical isolators, the necessary structures are tiny. The entire measuring system can be accommodated on a chip in millimeter format.”

This results in spectacular application ideas: one could place the chip on a drone and measure air pollutants. Chips glued to the wall could search for traces of explosive substances in buildings. The chips could be used in medical equipment to detect diseases by analyzing chemicals in the respiratory air.

The new technology has already been patented. “Other research teams are already highly interested in our system. We hope that it will soon be used not only in academic research, but also in everyday applications, “says Benedikt Schwarz.

Scientists from Jülich together with colleagues from Aachen and Turin have produced a memristive element made from nanowires that functions in much the same way as a biological nerve cell. The component is able to both save and process information, as well as receive numerous signals in parallel. The resistive switching cell made from oxide crystal nanowires is thus proving to be the ideal candidate for use in building bioinspired “neuromorphic” processors, able to take over the diverse functions of biological synapses and neurons.

Computers have learned a lot in recent years. Thanks to rapid progress in artificial intelligence they are now able to drive cars, translate texts, defeat world champions at chess, and much more besides. In doing so, one of the greatest challenges lies in the attempt to artificially reproduce the signal processing in the human brain. In neural networks, data are stored and processed to a high degree in parallel. Traditional computers on the other hand rapidly work through tasks in succession and clearly distinguish between the storing and processing of information. As a rule, neural networks can only be simulated in a very cumbersome and inefficient way using conventional hardware.

Systems with neuromorphic chips that imitate the way the human brain works offer significant advantages. Experts in the field describe this type of bioinspired computer as being able to work in a decentralised way, having at its disposal a multitude of processors, which, like neurons in the brain, are connected to each other by networks. If a processor breaks down, another can take over its function. What is more, just like in the brain, where practice leads to improved signal transfer, a bioinspired processor should have the capacity to learn.

“With today’s semiconductor technology, these functions are to some extent already achievable. These systems are however suitable for particular applications and require a lot of space and energy,” says Dr. Ilia Valov from Forschungszentrum Jülich. “Our nanowire devices made from zinc oxide crystals can inherently process and even store information, as well as being extremely small and energy efficient,” explains the researcher from Jülich’s Peter Grünberg Institute.

For years memristive cells have been ascribed the best chances of being capable of taking over the function of neurons and synapses in bioinspired computers. They alter their electrical resistance depending on the intensity and direction of the electric current flowing through them. In contrast to conventional transistors, their last resistance value remains intact even when the electric current is switched off. Memristors are thus fundamentally capable of learning.

In order to create these properties, scientists at Forschungszentrum Jülich and RWTH Aachen University used a single zinc oxide nanowire, produced by their colleagues from the polytechnic university in Turin. Measuring approximately one ten-thousandth of a millimeter in size, this type of nanowire is over a thousand times thinner than a human hair. The resulting memristive component not only takes up a tiny amount of space, but also is able to switch much faster than flash memory.

Nanowires offer promising novel physical properties compared to other solids and are used among other things in the development of new types of solar cells, sensors, batteries and computer chips. Their manufacture is comparatively simple. Nanowires result from the evaporation deposition of specified materials onto a suitable substrate, where they practically grow of their own accord.

In order to create a functioning cell, both ends of the nanowire must be attached to suitable metals, in this case platinum and silver. The metals function as electrodes, and in addition, release ions triggered by an appropriate electric current. The metal ions are able to spread over the surface of the wire and build a bridge to alter its conductivity.

Components made from single nanowires are, however, still too isolated to be of practical use in chips. Consequently, the next step being planned by the Jülich and Turin researchers is to produce and study a memristive element, composed of a larger, relatively easy to generate group of several hundred nanowires offering more exciting functionalities.

How long can tiny gears and other microscopic moving parts last before they wear out? What are the warning signs that these components are about to fail, which can happen in just a few tenths of a second? Striving to provide clear answers to these questions, researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have developed a method for more quickly tracking microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) as they work and, just as importantly, as they stop working.

By using this method for microscopic failure analysis, researchers and manufacturers could improve the reliability of the MEMS components that they are developing, ranging from miniature robots and drones to tiny forceps for eye surgery and sensors to detect trace amounts of toxic chemicals.

Over the past decade, researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have measured the motion and interactions between MEMS components. In their newest work, the scientists succeeded in making these measurements a hundred times faster, on the scale of thousandths, rather than tenths, of a second.

The faster time scale enabled the researchers to resolve fine details of the transient and erratic motions that may occur before and during the failure of MEMS. The faster measurements also allowed repetitive testing–necessary for assessing the durability of the miniature mechanical systems–to be conducted more quickly. The NIST researchers, including Samuel Stavis and Craig Copeland, described their work in the Journal of Microelectromechanical Systems.

As in their previous work, the team labeled the MEMS components with fluorescent particles to track their motion. Using optical microscopes and sensitive cameras to view and image the light-emitting particles, the researchers tracked displacements as small as a few billionths of a meter and rotations as tiny as several millionths of a radian. One microradian is the angle corresponding to an arc of about 10 meters along the circumference of the earth.

A faster imaging system and larger fluorescent particles, which emit more light, provided the scientists with the tools to perform their particle-tracking measurements a hundred times more rapidly than before.

“If you cannot measure how the components of a MEMS move at the relevant length and time scales, then it is difficult to understand how they work and how to improve them,” Copeland said.

In their test system, Stavis, Copeland and their colleagues tested part of a microelectromechanical motor. The test part snapped back and forth, rotating a gear through a ratchet mechanism. Although this system is one of the more reliable MEMS that transfer motion through parts in sliding contact, it nonetheless can exhibit such problems as erratic performance and untimely failure.

The team found that the jostling of contacting parts in the system, whether contact between the parts occurred at only one point or shifted between several points, and wear of the contacting surfaces, could all play a key role in the durability of MEMS.

“Our tracking method is broadly applicable to study the motion of microsystems, and we continue to advance it,” said Stavis.

Human skin contains sensitive nerve cells that detect pressure, temperature and other sensations that allow tactile interactions with the environment. To help robots and prosthetic devices attain these abilities, scientists are trying to develop electronic skins. Now researchers report a new method in ACS Applied Materials & Interfacesthat creates an ultrathin, stretchable electronic skin, which could be used for a variety of human-machine interactions. See a video of the e-skin here.

Electronic skin could be used for many applications, including prosthetic devices, wearable health monitors, robotics and virtual reality. A major challenge is transferring ultrathin electrical circuits onto complex 3D surfaces and then having the electronics be bendable and stretchable enough to allow movement. Some scientists have developed flexible “electronic tattoos” for this purpose, but their production is typically slow, expensive and requires clean-room fabrication methods such as photolithography. Mahmoud Tavakoli, Carmel Majidi and colleagues wanted to develop a fast, simple and inexpensive method for producing thin-film circuits with integrated microelectronics.

In the new approach, the researchers patterned a circuit template onto a sheet of transfer tattoo paper with an ordinary desktop laser printer. They then coated the template with silver paste, which adhered only to the printed toner ink. On top of the silver paste, the team deposited a gallium-indium liquid metal alloy that increased the electrical conductivity and flexibility of the circuit. Finally, they added external electronics, such as microchips, with a conductive “glue” made of vertically aligned magnetic particles embedded in a polyvinyl alcohol gel. The researchers transferred the electronic tattoo to various objects and demonstrated several applications of the new method, such as controlling a robot prosthetic arm, monitoring human skeletal muscle activity and incorporating proximity sensors into a 3D model of a hand.

Miniature devices for sensing biological molecules could be developed quicker thanks to a rapid prototyping method. Devices that sense and measure biological molecules important for healthcare, such as detecting diseases in blood samples, rely on electrodes to carry out their tasks.

New generations of these devices are being made that manipulate molecules or work with smaller concentrations of molecules, for example detecting rare cancer cells in blood samples.

These require intricate patterning of minute electrodes. Getting the right pattern is key, but building prototypes of different electrode designs can be expensive and time-consuming, often requiring specialist equipment and expertise.

Now, researchers at Imperial College London, have created a method that allows intricate electrode patterns to be printed in community labs and hackspaces at a fraction of the time and cost. The details of their method are published in Scientific Reports.

Lead researcher Dr Ali Salehi-Reyhani, from the Department of Chemistry at Imperial, said: “With our method researchers and startups can more easily design and develop analytical devices, even when they need electronics that can’t be bought off-the-shelf.

“Community hackspaces are great for democratising science, allowing more people to try out new technology solutions. We hope this method will allow bioelectronics to benefit from that ecosystem of hackers getting hands-on with problems and solutions in healthcare.”

The method allows researchers to design electrode patterns on computers before printing them off using a laser-cutting printer. The cavities are then filled with metal using microfluidic techniques — using the science of how fluids move through confined spaces.

In this way, researchers could print several sheets of electrodes, each with a slightly different design, allowing them to be tested in rapid succession to find the best design. Previously, designs may have had to be sent away to be manufactured, taking weeks or even months to arrive at the best design, but now the whole process can be reduced to a matter of days.

The team at fabriCELL, a centre of excellence in artificial cell science run by Imperial College London and King’s College London, are now using the technique to prototype devices for manipulating and analysing cells.

They say the technique could be used to speed up the development of flexible wearable devices, such as skin patches that monitor health signals and devices, and devices that could be used in hospitals or GP surgeries, such as ones that can quickly distinguish between viral and bacterial infections with just a drop of blood.

The European Research Council (ERC) has just published the list of 27 projects it selected out of the 299 submitted to the ERC Synergy 2018 call for projects. Among them, the CEA’s laboratories have 3 winners.  In order to ensure Europe’s long-term competitiveness, the ERC’s mission is to support world-class frontier research of excellence through highly competitive calls for projects. With a budget of 250 million euros, the “Synergy” category supports two to four researchers and their teams from different laboratories to jointly carry out an ambitious research project over a six-year period. With 35 million euros in European subsidies granted to these three projects, this is a strong recognition of the expertise of the CEA and its partners within the European Research Area.

ReNewQuantum (for Recursive and Exact New Quantum)

While quantum physics is omnipresent in most recent science and technology, quantum theory needs mathematical tools. These are currently somewhat lacking, in particular for complex quantum systems and approximation methods.

This is why the ReNewQuantum project is aiming to develop a mathematical method of semi-classical approximation[1] of quantum theories, which could benefit the entire scientific community, whether it is working on chaotic systems, quantum field theories or string theory. Building on concrete success already achieved in some quantum systems, ReNewQuantum proposes using modern geometry to reinterpret quantum theories and, in particular, to reinterpret semi-classical corrections as geometric objects. The project aims for a better understanding of the entire set of corrections, which would enable more effective computing. The objective is therefore to generalize these geometric methods to create a mathematical applicable to almost all quantum theories.

QuCube (for 3D integration technology for silicon spin qubits)[2]

Applied to the field of computing, quantum physics could revolutionize high performance computing, theoretically solving problems that conventional supercomputers are unable to solve. All major industries (transport, finance, energy, chemistry, pharmaceuticals, etc.) could benefit from quantum computing. In practice, this research has produced the first proofs of concept for quantum bits – the quantum equivalent of the most basic bit in elementary computing – but it is not yet certain that these first demonstrations can be reproduced on a large scale. In this context, the QuCube project aims to develop a quantum processor based on silicon, the base material already used in what is known as classical electronics. The processor will support at least one hundred quantum bits, or qubits, currently a first in terms of qubit numbers. The success of the project requires technological breakthroughs, including architecture implementation, the control of quantum bit variability or the implementation of quantum error correction processes, and finally a thorough understanding of conventional control electronics, for example on issues related to thermal dissipation.

Whole Sun (for The Whole Sun Project: Untangling the complex physical mechanisms behind our eruptive magnetic star and its twins)[3]

Our Sun is an active magnetic star that, due to its variable and eruptive behavior, has a direct impact on our technological society. However, despite decades of research, many questions remain unanswered. While this research into solar physics has so far focused on either the structure and dynamics of the inside of the Sun or, separately, on the surface and atmosphere of the Sun, the Whole Sun project aims to understand the Sun as a whole by consolidating research into these two major solar regions. A detailed study of the (thermo) dynamic and magnetic interaction between the deep solar interior, the surface of the Sun and the highly stratified atmosphere is absolutely vital if we hope to tackle the fundamental problems of solar physics (such as the origin of sunspots and the 11-year cycle; the presence of a warm atmosphere, etc.). In conjunction with the development of what is known as ‘exascale’ computers[4], Whole Sun will deliver the most advanced multi-resolution solar code in order to jointly address global and local, macrophysical and microphysical aspects of solar dynamics. Finally, extending this integrated approach led by Whole Sun to solar analogue stars that have different rotational speeds and chemical compositions will also provide a deeper understanding of stellar magnetism and activity.

[1] That is, starting from a classical system and calculating the successive quantum corrections.

[2] With CNRS and the participation of teams from the Université Grenoble Alpes.

[3] With the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (Germany), the University of Oslo (Norway) and the University of St Andrews (United Kingdom).

[4] Exascale computers are capable of performing a billion billion calculations per second. CEA is actively involved in working to develop this new generation of supercomputers.

[5] Not including these three new Synergy projects.

Researchers at RMIT University have engineered a new type of transistor, the building block for all electronics. Instead of sending electrical currents through silicon, these transistors send electrons through narrow air gaps, where they can travel unimpeded as if in space.

The nano-gap transistors operating in air. As gaps become smaller than the mean-free path of electrons in air, there is ballistic electron transport. Credit: RMIT University

The device unveiled in material sciences journal Nano Letters, eliminates the use of any semiconductor at all, making it faster and less prone to heating up.

Lead author and PhD candidate in RMIT’s Functional Materials and Microsystems Research Group, Ms Shruti Nirantar, said this promising proof-of-concept design for nanochips as a combination of metal and air gaps could revolutionise electronics.

“Every computer and phone has millions to billions of electronic transistors made from silicon, but this technology is reaching its physical limits where the silicon atoms get in the way of the current flow, limiting speed and causing heat,” Nirantar said.

“Our air channel transistor technology has the current flowing through air, so there are no collisions to slow it down and no resistance in the material to produce heat.”

The power of computer chips – or number of transistors squeezed onto a silicon chip – has increased on a predictable path for decades, roughly doubling every two years. But this rate of progress, known as Moore’s Law, has slowed in recent years as engineers struggle to make transistor parts, which are already smaller than the tiniest viruses, smaller still.

Nirantar says their research is a promising way forward for nano electronics in response to the limitation of silicon-based electronics.

“This technology simply takes a different pathway to the miniaturisation of a transistor in an effort to uphold Moore’s Law for several more decades,” Shruti said.

Research team leader Associate Professor Sharath Sriram said the design solved a major flaw in traditional solid channel transistors – they are packed with atoms – which meant electrons passing through them collided, slowed down and wasted energy as heat.

“Imagine walking on a densely crowded street in an effort to get from point A to B. The crowd slows your progress and drains your energy,” Sriram said.

“Travelling in a vacuum on the other hand is like an empty highway where you can drive faster with higher energy efficiency.”

But while this concept is obvious, vacuum packaging solutions around transistors to make them faster would also make them much bigger, so are not viable.

“We address this by creating a nanoscale gap between two metal points. The gap is only a few tens of nanometers, or 50,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair, but it’s enough to fool electrons into thinking that they are travelling through a vacuum and re-create a virtual outer-space for electrons within the nanoscale air gap,” he said.

The nanoscale device is designed to be compatible with modern industry fabrication and development processes. It also has applications in space – both as electronics resistant to radiation and to use electron emission for steering and positioning ‘nano-satellites’.

“This is a step towards an exciting technology which aims to create something out of nothing to significantly increase speed of electronics and maintain pace of rapid technological progress,” Sriram said.

The Chinese Advance Semiconductor Association (CASA) recently hosted the 7th annual IASIC event in Shenzhen, China. Attendees at the event were able to get a look at some of the most leading edge innovations from companies from around the world as well as fellow Chinese companies. Among all the companies involved, NOWI was selected as the overall Innovation Winner for its energy harvesting power module.

The NOWI power module, a type of IC (integrated circuit) eliminates the need for frequent battery changes or impractical cables. Instead it enables any IoT or wearables company to use external ambient energy sources and thereby reduce the need for maintenance. We call this Plug & Forget. This is achieved with an energy harvesting PMIC with the worlds-highest efficiency and sensitivity. With the rise of the Internet of Things billions of wireless devices are required and this technology thereby solves a significant bottleneck in the industry.

Receiving the award, Simon van der Jagt, CEO of NOWI: “We are honored to receive the IASIC award and it has been a valuable experience to learn more about the Chinese semiconductor ecosystem. The Chinese Advanced Semiconductor Association (CASA) and the IASIC organization have recognized that the Internet of Things has a strong need for new power solutions to enable long maintenance-free product lifetimes. With new emerging energy harvesting and power management technology the Internet of Things is entering a new phase of maturity as connected devices become energy autonomous. This dramatically decreases the difficulty and cost of deploying and maintaining Internet of Things systems.”

“China has shown a clear ambition to be one of the leaders in the Internet of Things. As part of this visit, NOWI was also able to explore potential technology collaboration with leading global IoT companies”

During the two day event, a panel of international experts evaluated a range of leading semiconductor innovators. One such judge, former Intel and GE Senior Executive, IASIC Judge Mr Charles Zhang “The NOWI IC is a revolutionary product for the IoT industry, especially for devices like wearables or very power sensitive IoT sensors.  With the ability to capture and process tiny bits of energy from the environment, this innovation can benefit all types IoT sensor devices. The NOWI team did a great job to not only develop this technology but to already be working with customer for the real time deployment. That is why this is a winner.”

Quantum computers that are capable of solving complex problems, like drug design or machine learning, will require millions of quantum bits – or qubits – connected in an integrated way and designed to correct errors that inevitably occur in fragile quantum systems.

Now, an Australian research team has experimentally realised a crucial combination of these capabilities on a silicon chip, bringing the dream of a universal quantum computer closer to reality.

They have demonstrated an integrated silicon qubit platform that combines both single-spin addressability – the ability to ‘write’ information on a single spin qubit without disturbing its neighbours – and a qubit ‘read-out’ process that will be vital for quantum error correction.

Moreover, their new integrated design can be manufactured using well-established technology used in the existing computer industry.

The team is led by Scientia Professor Andrew Dzurak of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, a program leader at the Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology (CQC2T) and Director of the NSW node of the Australian National Fabrication Facility.

Last year, Dzurak and colleagues published a design for a novel chip architecture that could allow quantum calculations to be performed using silicon CMOS (complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor) components – the basis of all modern computer chips.

In their new study, published today in the journal Nature Communications, the team combine two fundamental quantum techniques for the first time, confirming the promise of their approach.

Dzurak’s team had also previously shown that an integrated silicon qubit platform can operate with single-spin addressability – the ability to rotate a single spin without disturbing its neighbours.

They have now shown that they can combine this with a special type of quantum readout process known as Pauli spin blockade, a key requirement for quantum error correcting codes that will be necessary to ensure accuracy in large spin-based quantum computers. This new combination of qubit readout and control techniques is a central feature of their quantum chip design.

“We’ve demonstrated the ability to do Pauli spin readout in our silicon qubit device but, for the first time, we’ve also combined it with spin resonance to control the spin,” says Dzurak.

“This is an important milestone for us on the path to performing quantum error correction with spin qubits, which is going to be essential for any universal quantum computer.”

“Quantum error correction is a key requirement in creating large-scale useful quantum computing because all qubits are fragile, and you need to correct for errors as they crop up,” says lead author, Michael Fogarty, who performed the experiments as part of his PhD research with Professor Dzurak at UNSW.

“But this creates significant overhead in the number of physical qubits you need in order to make the system work,” notes Fogarty.

Dzurak says, “By using silicon CMOS technology we have the ideal platform to scale to the millions of qubits we will need, and our recent results provide us with the tools to achieve spin qubit error-correction in the near future.”

“It’s another confirmation that we’re on the right track. And it also shows that the architecture we’ve developed at UNSW has, so far, shown no roadblocks to the development of a working quantum computer chip.”

“And, what’s more, one that can be manufactured using well-established industry processes and components.”


Working in silicon is important not just because the element is cheap and abundant, but because it has been at the heart of the global computer industry for almost 60 years. The properties of silicon are well understood and chips containing billions of conventional transistors are routinely manufactured in big production facilities.

Three years ago, Dzurak’s team published in the journal Nature the first demonstration of quantum logic calculations in a real silicon device with the creation of a two-qubit logic gate – the central building block of a quantum computer.

“Those were the first baby steps, the first demonstrations of how to turn this radical quantum computing concept into a practical device using components that underpin all modern computing,” says Professor Mark Hoffman, UNSW’s Dean of Engineering.

“Our team now has a blueprint for scaling that up dramatically.

“We’ve been testing elements of this design in the lab, with very positive results. We just need to keep building on that – which is still a hell of a challenge, but the groundwork is there, and it’s very encouraging.

“It will still take great engineering to bring quantum computing to commercial reality, but clearly the work we see from this extraordinary team at CQC2T puts Australia in the driver’s seat,” he added.

Other authors of the new Nature Communications paper are UNSW researchers Kok Wai Chan, Bas Hensen, Wister Huang, Tuomo Tanttu, Henry Yang, Arne Laucht, Fay Hudson and Andrea Morello, as well as Menno Veldhorst of QuTech and TU Delft, Thaddeus Ladd of HRL Laboratories and Kohei Itoh of Japan’s Keio University.


In 2017, a consortium of Australian governments, industry and universities established Australia’s first quantum computing company to commercialise CQC2T’s world-leading intellectual property.

Operating out of new laboratories at UNSW, Silicon Quantum Computing Pty Ltd (SQC) has the target of producing a 10-qubit demonstration device in silicon by 2022, as the forerunner to creating a silicon-based quantum computer.

The work of Dzurak and his team will be one component of SQC realising that ambition. UNSW scientists and engineers at CQC2T are developing parallel patented approaches using single atom and quantum dot qubits.

In May 2018, the then Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull, and the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, announced the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) addressing a new collaboration between SQC and the world-leading French research and development organisation, Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique et aux Energies Alternatives (CEA).

The MoU outlined plans to form a joint venture in silicon-CMOS quantum computing technology to accelerate and focus technology development, as well as to capture commercialisation opportunities – bringing together French and Australian efforts to develop a quantum computer.

The proposed Australian-French joint venture would bring together Dzurak’s team, located at UNSW, with a team led by Dr Maud Vinet from CEA, who are experts in advanced CMOS manufacturing technology, and who have also recently demonstrated a silicon qubit made using their industrial-scale prototyping facility in Grenoble.

It is estimated that industries comprising approximately 40% of Australia’s current economy could be significantly impacted by quantum computing.

Possible applications include software design, machine learning, scheduling and logistical planning, financial analysis, stock market modelling, software and hardware verification, climate modelling, rapid drug design and testing, and early disease detection and prevention.

Finding ways to improve the drug development process – which is currently costly, time-consuming and has an astronomically high failure rate – could have far-reaching benefits for health care and the economy. Researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology have designed a cellular interfacing array using low-cost electronics that measures multiple cellular properties and responses in real time. This could enable many more potential drugs to be comprehensively tested for efficacy and toxic effects much faster. That’s why Hua Wang, associate professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Georgia Tech, describes it as “helping us find the golden needle in the haystack.”

Built on standard complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) technologies, the cellular sensing array chip uses a standard 35 mm cell culture dish with the bottom removed to host the cells and expose them to the sensing surface.

Pharmaceutical companies use cell-based assays, a combination of living cells and sensor electronics, to measure physiological changes in the cells. That data is used for high-throughput screening (HTS) during drug discovery. In this early phase of drug development, the goal is to identify target pathways and promising chemical compounds that could be developed further – and to eliminate those that are ineffective or toxic – by measuring the physiological responses of the cells to each compound.

Phenotypic testing of thousands of candidate compounds, with the majority “failing early,” allows only the most promising ones to be further developed into drugs and maybe eventually to undergo clinical trials, where drug failure is much more costly. But most existing cell-based assays use electronic sensors that can only measure one physiological property at a time and cannot obtain holistic cellular responses.

That’s where the new cellular sensing platform comes in. “The innovation of our technology is that we are able to leverage the advance of nano-electronic technologies to create cellular interfacing platforms with massively parallel pixels,” said Wang. “And within each pixel we can detect multiple physiological parameters from the same group of cells at the same time.” The experimental quad-modality chip features extracellular or intracellular potential recording, optical detection, cellular impedance measurement, and biphasic current stimulation.

Wang said the new technology offers four advantages over existing platforms:

Multimodal sensing: The chip’s ability to record multiple parameters on the same cellular sample gives researchers the ability to comprehensively monitor complex cellular responses, uncover the correlations among those parameters and investigate how they may respond together when exposed to drugs. “Living cells are small but highly complex systems. Drug administration often results in multiple physiological changes, but this cannot be detected using conventional single-modal sensing,” said Wang.

Large field of view: The platform allows researchers to examine the behavior of cells in a large aggregate to see how they respond collectively at the tissue level.

Small spatial resolution: Not only can researchers look at cells at the tissue level, they could also examine them at single-cell or even sub-cellular resolution.

Low-cost platform: The new array platform is built on standard complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) technologies, which is also used to build computer chips, and can be easily scaled up for mass production.

Wang’s team worked closely with Hee Cheol Cho, associate professor and the Urowsky-Sahr Scholar in Pediatric Bioengineering, whose Heart Regeneration lab is part of the Wallace Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University. They used neonatal rat ventricular myocytes and cardiac fibroblasts to illustrate the multi-parametric cell profiling ability of the array for drug screening. The recent results were published in the Royal Society of Chemistry’s journal Lab on a Chip on August 31, 2018.

Monitoring cellular responses in multi-physical domains and holistic multi-parametric cellular profiling should also prove beneficial in screening out chemical compounds that could have harmful effects on certain organs, said Jong Seok Park, a post-doctoral fellow in Wang’s lab and a leading author of the study. Many drugs have been withdrawn from the market after discoveries that they had toxic effects on the heart or liver, for example. This platform should enable researchers to comprehensively test for organ toxicity and other side effects at the initial phases of drug discovery.

The experimental chip may be useful for other applications, including personalized medicine – for example, testing cancer cells from a particular patient. “Patient to patient variation is huge, even with the same type of drug,” said Wang. The cellular interface array could be used to see which combination of existing drugs would give the best response and to find the optimum dose that is most effective with minimum toxicity to healthy cells.

The chip is capable of actuation as well as sensing. In the future, Wang said that cellular data from the chip could be uploaded and processed, and based on that, commands for new actuation or data acquisition could be sent to the chip automatically and wirelessly. He envisions rooms and rooms containing culture chambers with millions of such chips in fully automated facilities, “just automatically doing new drug selection for us,” he said.

Beyond these applications, Wang noted the scientific value of the research itself. Integrated circuits and nanoelectronics are some of the most sophisticated technology platforms created by humans. Living cells, on the other hand, are complex products produced through billions of years of natural selection and evolution.

“The central theme of our research is how we can leverage the best platform created by nature with the best platform created by humans,” he said. “Can we let them work together to create hybrid systems that achieve capabilities beyond biology only or electronics only systems? The fundamental scientific question we are addressing is how we can let inorganic electronics better interface with organic living cells.”