Faster, Smarter, Better: The Next Chip Revolution
Companies in semiconductors, medicine, and consumer electronics—such as Applied Materials and NXP—are building devices that will change our bodies, the environment, and transportation.
By Tiernan Ray
The world around us will soon be engulfed by machines that affect our living spaces, our bodies, and our experience of light and sound, powered by a novel combination of semiconductors and miniature engines. Tasks as basic as charging a smartphone or cooking an egg—and as complex as scanning for colon cancer or powering flying drones on long journeys—stand to be transformed.
“We’ve spent the last five decades building the brains of the computer,” says Paul Saffo, a Stanford University adjunct professor in the mechanical engineering department, referring to the perfecting of the microprocessor. Now it’s time to give those brains the corresponding brawn to affect our world.
“The future is about how we do more and more work with less physical stuff.”
Sensors gave machines the ability to perceive things like light, altitude, and moisture by converting stimuli into ones and zeros. The coming revolution will be filled with what are called “actuators,” which do the reverse. They allow machines to simplify our world by converting those ones and zeros back into some form of force, such as light or magnetic waves, or even physical pressure that can push objects. The actuator, like the sensor before it, is part of technology’s relentless quest to make machines do more and more things with greater and greater efficiency, as epitomized by the microprocessor, the most efficient information device ever made.
“You can basically look at anything that’s bulky and make it smaller and cheaper,” says Saffo.
As a result, whole industries will be reshaped. The market for fossil fuels, for example, will suffer a new setback, as power for your electric vehicle can be delivered from a simple charging plate that works in much the same way your Apple Watch gets juiced up in its cradle. The life-sciences market will have to adjust to a world where tests can be performed and therapies delivered from a capsule you swallow to detect cancer. And robots that use actuators to move parts with great precision—and can be recharged wirelessly—will take on more manufacturing tasks.
Winners in this faster, better, smarter world will be companies such as Applied MaterialsAMAT in Your Value Your Change Short position (ticker: AMAT), the world’s largest maker of semiconductor manufacturing equipment, which is developing ways to engineer novel materials to move energy more efficiently. And old analog-chip companies, such as Integrated Device Technology (IDTI) will gain new relevance for their ability to master the movement of power. Newly public stars, such as wireless-energy firm EnergousWATT in Your Value Your Change Short position (WATT), could gain prominence as their wares become reality. Many more of the companies shaping the actuator revolution aren’t yet public.
Take a bulky device like a microwave oven. In a conference room at the offices of chip maker NXP Semiconductors PI in Your Value Your Change Short position (NXPI) in Chandler, Ariz., several cooking appliances are assembled for a demonstration. NXP’s Dan Viza, who runs the company’s emerging-applications unit and its “RF cooking” effort, wants to show how his chip can produce magic, by cooking an egg.
You can’t cook an egg in a microwave. The magnetron, the device that emits the microwaves, blasts the egg with such force that it bursts. Viza’s appliance, which looks like a conventional microwave oven, has been retrofitted with a power amplifier, a chip that NXP has sold for years. It is used in cellular base stations to send RF signals to your phone.
In an oven, the power amp is an actuator that stimulates the molecules in food with microwave radiation.
But it is able to continually vary the intensity of that radiation, unlike the uniform radiation of the magnetron, and dial it back when a substance is more delicate. Out of the oven comes the transformed egg in its little dish. A single bite reveals it is firm, not succulent, but also not rubbery—somewhere between a boiled egg and a coddled egg, and entirely edible.
IF IT CAN COOK AN EGG, the power amp can cook entire meals, say Viza and his colleague, Paul Hart, the manager of NXP’s RF chip business. They call it “high-def cooking.” “The magnetron today delivers power in an on or off fashion,” says Viza. With NXP’s chip, “you can control the power and distribute the energy for the food in different temperature zones [simultaneously], applying different heat for vegetables, meat, bread, what have you.”
This is not a new technology, per se. NXP has been selling power amps for years. But it wasn’t until 2014 that the company was able to make one efficient enough to convert electricity to heat in a fashion matching the exacting standards of appliance makers.
Shares of NXP are up about 20% in the past six weeks amid speculation the company will be bought by wireless-chip maker QualcommQCOM in Your Value Your Change Short position (QCOM). The deal may be announced as soon as this week.
Unlike the NXP chip, some actuators will need a breakthrough in semiconductor material. One of the most promising is made of a compound of gallium and nitride, referred to as GaN. It’s far more efficient than silicon at converting the movement of electrons into energy radiating outward.
GaN has acquired more and more fans. A start-up called Soraa, based in Fremont, Calif., has used the technology to develop new kinds of LED light bulbs that emit light with a much broader spectrum. Under their glare, colors appear much richer than with typical LED lights.
Few are as passionate about GaN as Alex Lidow, co-founder and CEO of an El Segundo, Calif.–based start-up called Efficient Power Conversion, or EPC. Lidow’s outfit is promoting GaN for an astonishing number of innovations. One is a pill being developed by Check-Cap HEK in Your Value Your Change Short position CHEK), based in Mount Carmel, Israel, to detect colorectal cancer, the second leading cause of U.S. cancer-related deaths. Americans above age 50 are advised to be screened for colorectal cancer, but 40% don’t get the test. “It’s highly effective, it saves lives,” says Check-Cap CEO Bill Densel. “But it’s uncomfortable and embarrassing, so people avoid it.”
The EPC GaN chip is placed in the Check-Cap pill that the patient swallows, with no fasting required. Once inside the body, the GaN chip detects photons bouncing off the colon wall as the tissue is exposed to X-rays. Those photons can be used to produce a “contour map” of the colon in 360 degrees. The photon data is sent to a wireless receiver the patient wears.
After two to three days, on average, the pill leaves the body (the way most stuff does), and the patient takes the wireless receiver to the doctor for analysis. (The capsule doesn’t need to be recovered.)
“Polyps protrude inward into the colon, and those irregularities can be displayed when we look at that map,” explains Densel of the polyp and tumor hunting. The Check-Cap test is expected to cost around $600, compared with $1,200 or more for a colonoscopy, not including the anesthesiologist’s fee.
Check-Cap is preparing a series of clinical studies, to culminate with a Food and Drug Administration study in 2018, which could be completed the following year. The company has enough cash to take it through next year after doing a registered direct public offering of shares in August, says Densel. Check-Cap, it bears noting, is still a development-stage company with a stock market value of just $23 million.
EPC is working with another firm, whose name Lidow can’t disclose, that is developing an artificial heart powered wirelessly, eliminating the need for wires extruding from the organ into the patient’s body.
Another use is being developed by Israeli start-up BlueWind Medical, a subsidiary of Rainbow Medical. BlueWind makes a “neurostimulation” device that wraps around nerve endings and “tunes out” pain by generating a minute electric field at the synapse. It can be activated by patients for up to eight hours a day to relieve pain via a wireless controller outside the body, and is meant to be an alternative to taking opioids.
Few things seem as visionary, though, as Lidow’s faith that the cord that plugs your laptop into the wall will become a thing of the past. “We will start seeing the end of power cords within 10 years,” he says. “I don’t know anyone who likes a power cord.”
EPC has deals with most of the companies making what’s called wireless power. One is the aforementioned Integrated Device Technology, which makes parts for “magnetic inductance.” By sending a charge to a magnetic coil, energy can be passed to another coil placed in contact with it. That’s the way your Apple Watch gets power from resting on a small pendant.
DT in Your Value Your Change Short position To date, IDT has sold over 70 million chips, for such wireless-charging devices, giving it the dominant share of the electronics inside them.
INDUCTANCE HAS A LOT OF RUNWAY, says Sailesh Chittipeddi, IDT’s chief technologist. “I would say a few more phone guys adopting it will get it in the several-hundred-million-unit range,” he says.
As with the sensors, cars will be an important test bed. Vehicles are filled with more and more electronics, such as the giant 17-inch video dashboard in a Tesla, and on-board cameras. All that brings with it more wires to connect all the chips. Almost a third of a vehicle’s weight is the wiring between all of its parts, says Chittipeddi.
“The [side view] mirror controls can be powered by inductance” instead of wires, he says. “Vehicle makers are going to be looking to reduce their cost by moving to wireless technologies wherever possible.”
More ambitious is something called magnetic resonance, which can operate without contact. Here, Lidow’s firm is working with a number of outfits, including WiTricity of Boston. Its founder, Marin Soljacic, a professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, figured out a way to tune magnetic coils to transmit energy between them far more efficiently, says CEO Alex Gruzen.
WiTricity has a deal with a major notebook manufacturer for the capability, coming soon, he says. It is also working with auto makers to deliver kilowatts of power wirelessly. “Imagine a pad on the floor of your garage where your car just starts charging automatically” as you roll over it, at a distance a foot and a half from the floor to the bottom of the chassis, Gruzen says.
IDT’s and WiTricity’s focus on charging by contact, or charging at small distances, isn’t sufficiently ambitious for some. The aforementioned Energous, run by wireless and semiconductor veterans, believes that by using RF power, similar to NXP’s oven, it is possible to send charges zipping all the way across the room at distances of up to 15 feet from your device.
Charging in this way wouldn’t be as fast as a cable, but it need not be, if transmitters are embedded in every surface around you and you can constantly tap into them. In that case, “from the time you are driving in your car to the time you’re sitting in your office, to the time you’re relaxing at home, you’ll be receiving power” for your wearable device or your phone, says Energous CEO Steve Rizzone.
You’ll be continually “topping off” your device by sipping power, and there will be fewer times when you get all the way to zero and need desperately to plug into the wall.
There are doubters. Some are professional, like VP of technical intelligence, Jim Morrison at Chipworks, a division of TechInsights, who says wireless power is as much as five years away. “It’s too futuristic, it’s not at all cost-effective today,” he adds.
Then there’s the Seeking Alpha Website, which contains some Ph.D. thesis–style refutations of Energous’ technical claims.
Rizzone speaks carefully. “Short sellers have been an issue,” he says. “They are very smart, and they’ve put together just enough accuracy to sound credible and create a level of concern, but we continue to overcome these issues.” Indeed, the stock has more than doubled this year and is up 56% since its March 2014 debut.
“Because in the end, the technology is real, it’s safe, and we will receive FCC approval,” Rizzone says.
The first products using Energous’ technology, which are scheduled to ship in the first quarter of next year, are contact-based chargers; contactless versions, with the ability to span a room, will follow, he says, sometime late next year.
From RF cooking to GaN pills in your system to wireless charging, all these things will be helped or hindered by the way they’re fabricated, which is a job for Applied Materials, the world’s largest vendor of tools to Intel (INTC) and other chip makers. For example, automobiles have “heads up” displays in which an image is projected above the dashboard. They use tiny mirrors that are like infinitely small mechanical structures with moving parts, called micro-electromechanical systems.
Car makers would like to have such mirrors made on the same piece of silicon as the control circuitry that drives the mirrors because it would save power. But to date, it hasn’t been possible.
Applied has developed a way to integrate the two using another elemental combination, silicon and germanium, which it says is ready to be demonstrated to customers now.
That kind of innovation is typical of the increasing role of materials engineering in making novel devices, says Om Nalamasu, Applied’s chief technologist. “In the late ’80s, most semiconductors used half a dozen elements,” says Nalamasu. “Today, we are using half the periodic table!”
WHAT HAPPENS AS ACTUATORS, the sinews of the machine, combine with its eyes and ears, the sensors? Humans will see extreme benefits, especially in health care, but machines themselves may see the most advantages.
For people, a sensor could detect one’s brain waves, and translate thought into a signal that makes an actuator move a limb, perhaps in the case of spinal or nerve damage. It’s similar to how scientist Stephen Hawking types on a computer by moving his eyes.
More tangible is the prospect that electric vehicles, freed by wireless charging, will pilot themselves via sensors to the nearest charging station, with no need for a human to plug them in. Such a system of constant charging would obviate the need for high-capacity batteries, making it easier for electric power to compete with gasoline in transportation. It would also obviously further the progress of driverless vehicles.
Similarly, robots with actuators built into them to manipulate objects could take over even more factory work. And flying drones could travel greater distances as charging stations on the ground beam power to them in midflight via RF transmissions.
INVESTORS HAVE BECOME OBSESSED with the financial potential of apps on a phone that have all come about due to sensors—things like tracking your fitness routine, monitoring the weather in your location, and finding nearby businesses. But those investors are about to be surprised by the follow-on to the sensor, the actuator. Its ability to change the everyday environment will make the world around us as intriguing as the digital world inside our phones, and perhaps even more promising for investors.