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Chip can act as a wireless sensor

18 September, 2007

An Irish start-up company has developed a technology that allows the surface of a chip to sense parameters such as temperature, humidity, and gases. Limerick-based ChipSensors unveiled the technology at an exhibition in Cambridge this month.

ChipSensor in fingers

Visitors to the exhibition were shown a prototype of single-chip temperature and humidity sensor, communicating via an off-chip wireless link to a PC displaying real-time measurements.

The patent-pending technology allows sensors, signal conditioning circuits - including high-resolution analogue-to-digital converters - and RF transceiver functions, to be integrated on a single chip, together with a controller and memory. ChipSensors is developing an ultra-low-power wireless version of its chip that combines all of these functions. It says that this device could be incorporated into ID tags.

Until now, most sensors have been manufactured on glass or ceramic substrates, using specialist materials and manufacturing processes, and have proved extremely difficult to incorporate into conventional CMOS semiconductor processes. The wafers had to be post-processed and the sensors tested and calibrated after packaging. This was time-consuming and expensive. ChipSensors claims that its proprietary technology overcomes these obstacles.

The technology exploits the fact that the standard CMOS dielectric material comprises porous oxides and polymers. By selectively admitting or blocking ingress of the agent being sensed, any changes in electrical characteristics can be detected and measured.

"By `piggy-backing` on mainstream semiconductor technology developments in this manner," says ChipSensors’ chief executive, Tim Cummins, "we are `putting sensors on Moore`s Law`, opening the door to true low-cost and high-volume scalability for wireless sensors."

ChipSensors was founded in 2006 as a spin-of from a design consultancy specialising in wireless sensors. Initially self-funded, with grants and equity from various government agencies, the company attracted sufficient venture capital to fund the development of its sensors. It is about to commercialise the technology, and is negotiating with potential customers, partners and investors.

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