Monthly Archives: April 2011

Holding it all together

microcircuit

When I was a kid, I loved tearing up stuff to see what was inside it.  I guess that’s just a normal guy thing, sort of like spitting off bridges or something.

Electronic devices had especially cool guts back in the day.  First there were tube radios that came with that eerie, 1950s sci-fi glow.  The tubes themselves were pretty cool, filled with all sorts of little metal screens and such.  Those were replaced by transistor radios which were less sci-fi but much more futuristic.

Today, I don’t get much pleasure out of tearing up stuff because all the innards are so integrated into modules that there is no longer anything interesting to look at.

Anyway, the point of this meandering reminesce is really to talk about what holds all those parts together.  In the old days, it was wires.  You could see them.  They were eventually replaced by printed circuit boards with flat metal traces instead of wires.  Now, even the connecting traces are often buried deep down in the circuit boards, or, even worse, designed into the silicon chips themselves.

But whether wires or traces or silicon pathways, something has to hold it all together, and that something has always been solder.  However, if VT Corporate Research Center company NBE Tech has it’s way, solder might be replaced by a new material made from silver nanoparticles.

Elimination of lead based solders has been a goal for many years.  Other types of solders can be used but the perfect combination of processing temperature and performance has not always been possible.  Investigation continues into other bonding methods, such as low temperature and pressure sintering of precious metals.  The new NBTech nanomaterial provides a way to bond semiconductor dice to substrates without solder, simply by applying a small pressure while simultaneously applying a relatively low temperature just over 200 degrees C.

NBE founder GQ Lu invented the material and then set up a company to commercialize it based on a license from Virginia Tech Intellectual Properties.  Since then he has worked to improve the performance and develop a manufacturing process suitable for commercial application.  He recently received an independent verification of the value of his invention by the Fraunhofer Institute.  Researchers there published a paper last fall that indicates sintered bonding using the nanomaterial paste produced stunningly better performance that solder-based attachments.  In one test, nanomaterial and solder bonded parts were subjected to heating/cooling cycles of 45-175 degrees C.  Using the data obtained, it was projected that the sintered parts would withstand up to 160 million cycles, where the soldered components failed after 40,000 cycles.

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Filed under Communications, electronics, Materials, Wireless

Local Tech Companies Nominated for Awards

It’s almost May, and you know what that means:  The NewVa Corridor Technology Council has announced a list of companies nominated for the various awards handed out at the annual awards banquet.  You can find a link to the NCTC website to register for the awards ceremony here.

Awards are handed out in the categories of Rising Star, Educator, Entrepreneur, Leadership, and Innovation.  Sometimes they hand out another special award for a local technology leader whose contributions don’t fit exactly into any of the single categories.  It’s a fun networking opportunity and a chance to reward the technology leaders who help drive the local economy.  This year it will be at the Hotel Roanoke, in beautiful downtown…er, …..Roanoke.

The list of nominees is provided by the local newspaper here.

Now, a comment about the NCTC name.  I liked it better before, when it was the New Century Technology Council.  Apparently they decided that once the New Century had cut it’s first teeth, it would seem passe’ to keep that reference.  So instead, they decided to use the terribly expensive “NewVA” brand (I don’t know who paid for it, or who came up with it – it wasn’t the NCTC as far as I know, but a regional re-branding.).  NewVA is sort of short for New Virginia, as if Old Virginia would be something distasteful, or old fashioned, maybe.  I’m not going to gripe about it too much, except to note that “NewVA Corridor Technology Council” does not roll off the tongue as smoothly as “New Century Technology Council”.

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Filed under biomimetic, biotechnology, Communications, Energy, fuel, genetics, Materials, medical technology, Networks, optics, propulsion, Robotics, Sensing, software, Wireless

Smart phones will be even smarter

From this…
It was only about thirty years ago that we saw the first mobile phones.  They were the size of small suitcases and usually came attached to a car.  I still recall purchasing a new vehicle in the early 1980s when there was a mobile phone promotion:  Free car phone with purchase of a new car.  Of course, you had to sign up for a 2-year service plan @ $1200 per year, which in 1983 was a lot of money for a guy straight out of school with a family to support.  In fact, very few people used them outside of business or Hollywood.  They weren’t very practical, and at the time, we didn’t yet consider ourselves so important that we needed to be accessible to every telemarketer 24 hours a day.
…to this?

Cell phones eventually became ubiquitous, and once the texting feature was discovered by teenage girls, the world would never be the same. If you doubt the power of teenage girls with cell phones, just look at who wins American Idol every year. Now, we carry computers around in our pockets that rival the power of mainframes of the 1970s and have all the features of Dick Tracy’s fabled wrist TV. Each year brings out newer models that are smaller, lighter and more powerful, like the iPhone 5 seen at right.

OK, so that’s just a mock up based on the current rumors of what it will look like when it actually hits the streets, later this month.  HA!  Anyway, the ever-increasing demand for data delivery on smartphones has created a number of obstacles and challenges for the folks who bring you cell service and hardware.  They have to continually search for more available bandwith while at the same time finding new ways to cram more data into the existing bandwith.

The next generation service, built around theLong Term Evolution (LTE) standards, will be a much smarter system than any in the past, perhaps rivalling the SkyNET of movie fame.  As the handset moves from cell to cell, it is essentially functioning as a tiny internet connection with all the bells and whistles of your desktop computer and the problems of radio communication on top.  The handsets will be increasingly smart to effect smooth handover from cell to cell without sacrificing quality of service.

Expect to see a heavy reliance on new techniques, variously called software defined radio (SDR) and Cognitive Engines which will be the framework for implementing the adaptability needed for the mobile computing and communication future.

More details on these new technologies will follow shortly.

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Filed under Communications, software, Wireless