Imec, KU Leuven and PragmatIC Semiconductor demonstrate fastest 8-bit flexible microprocessor for low-power applications

Imec, KU Leuven, and PragmatIC Semiconductor present the fastest 8-bit microprocessor in 0.8µm metal-oxide flexible technology capable of running real-time complex assembly code at the 2022 International Solid-State Circuits Conference.

At the 2022 International Solid-State Circuits Conference (2022 ISSCC), imec, a world-leading research and innovation hub in nanoelectronics and digital technologies, KU Leuven, and PragmatIC Semiconductor, a world leader in flexible electronics, present the fastest 8-bit microprocessor in 0.8µm metal-oxide flexible technology capable of running real-time complex assembly code. The microprocessor was implemented with a unique digital design flow that allowed the creation of a new standard cell library for metal-oxide thin-film technologies – relevant for designing a broad range of loT applications. The robust thin-film technology offered by imec’s foundry partner PragmatIC Semiconductor was key to integrate the approximately ~16,000 metal-oxide thin-film transistors on a 24.9mm2 flexible chip.

Flexible electronics based on thin-film transistor technology is preferred over Si CMOS-based electronics for applications requiring low-cost, thin, flexible and/or conformable devices. The technology already made inroads in, e.g., health-patch sensors and RFID labels, and as a driver for flat panel displays. The missing piece is a flexible microprocessor to perform more complex signal processing calculations – as such adding compute functionality to a broad range of IoT applications.

Imec has designed a flexible 8-bit microprocessor in 0.8µm indium-gallium-zinc-oxide (IGZO)-transistor technology, able to perform such complex computations. Kris Myny, Principal Scientist at imec: “Our flexible microprocessor shows excellent characteristics for IoT applications, including high speed (71.4kHz max operating speed), low power consumption (11.6mW when running at 10kHz, 134.9mW at max operating speed), and high transistor integration density (~16,000 transistors with 0,8µm gate length in a 24.9mm2 chip). Moreover, at ISSCC 2022, we will showcase real-time correct operation of our circuit by running the complex assembly code of the popular Snake game.”

With the new microprocessor, imec addressed major challenges related to the design of unipolar systems. Kris Myny: “Metal-oxide thin-film transistors based on IGZO are inherently n-type. This results in circuits with a higher (static) power consumption compared to complementary technologies. To address this, we created our own design flow starting from the open-source file of the MOS6502 microprocessor – one of the most influential microprocessors ever designed. We engineered the number of cells and logic gates to obtain the most optimal design for our flexible6502 microprocessor in terms of area, power, and speed – using pseudo-CMOS as our logic family. This unique design flow allowed us to create a new standard cell library for metal-oxide thin-film technology that can be used to innovate applications based on metal-oxide thin-film technology. As such, this work nicely wraps up my ERC Starting Grant which aimed at opening up new horizons in the field of thin-film transistor technology.”

To fabricate the flexible microprocessor, imec teamed up with foundry partner PragmatIC, whose unique FlexIC Foundry® offers rapid prototyping and high-yield volume manufacturing of flexible integrated circuits. Brian Cobb, VP Product Development at PragmatIC:  “Until recently, there was no mature and robust technology available for integrating such a large number of thin-film transistors with sufficient yield. Our pioneering  FlexLogIC® fab now enables the rapid turnaround of such complex new designs at an ultra-low cost, delivering ICs on thin and flexible wafers. Our FlexIC Foundry service continues to be instrumental in enabling design teams like the one at imec to expand the range of design and use cases for flexible electronics.”

This research was performed in the framework of the ERC starting grant FLICs under grant agreement No 716426 under the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.


About imec

Imec is a world-leading research and innovation center in nanoelectronics and digital technologies. Imec leverages its state-of-the-art R&D infrastructure and its team of more than 5,000 employees and top researchers, for R&D in advanced semiconductor and system scaling, silicon photonics, artificial intelligence, beyond 5G communications and sensing technologies, and in application domains such as health and life sciences, mobility, industry 4.0, agrofood, smart cities, sustainable energy, education, … Imec unites world-industry leaders across the semiconductor value chain, Flanders-based and international tech, pharma, medical and ICT companies, start-ups, and academia and knowledge centers. Imec is headquartered in Leuven (Belgium), and has research sites across Belgium, in the Netherlands and the USA, and offices in China, India, Taiwan and Japan. In 2020, imec's revenue (P&L) totaled 680 million euro.

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Imec is a registered trademark for the activities of imec International (IMEC International, a legal entity set up under Belgian law as a “stichting van openbaar nut”), imec Belgium (IMEC vzw supported by the Flemish Government), imec the Netherlands (Stichting IMEC Nederland),  imec Taiwan (IMEC Taiwan Co.), imec China (IMEC Microelectronics (Shanghai) Co. Ltd.), imec India (IMEC India Private Limited), imec San Francisco (IMEC Inc.) and imec Florida (IMEC USA Nanoelectronics Design Center Inc.).

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About PragmatIC Semiconductor

PragmatIC Semiconductor is a world leader in ultra-low-cost flexible electronics. The unique technology platform enables innovators to create novel solutions to everyday problems that are beyond the scope of conventional electronics. The proprietary flexible integrated circuits (FlexICs) are thinner than a human hair and extend proven applications such as RFID and NFC into mass market use cases, enabling the potential for trillions of smart objects that can engage with consumers and their environments. PragmatIC is headquartered in Cambridge, UK, with manufacturing operations in the North East. Shareholders include Cambridge Innovation Capital, Arm, Avery Dennison, Amcor and a select group of individual investors with significant experience in the semiconductor industry.

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