Bram Nauta designs chips for today and tomorrow
Bram Nauta is a distinguished university professor and chairman of the Integrated Circuit Design department at the University of Twente. He is a globally recognised expert in chip design. "I mainly design the circuits on a chip. The emphasis is on wireless communication and connecting the analogue and digital worlds. The world is analogue and when we measure or register certain things we want to be able to convert them to the digital world and vice versa. I design the circuits for these tasks. My speciality is to convert very weak antenna signals, which are difficult to receive into digital bits. So, I operate at the interface between bits and nature, I make sure that radio waves are converted into digital bits, and vice versa."
The professor mainly focuses on improvements in speed, efficiency and form factor. "The mobile phone of 10 years ago was much larger, worked much slower and the batteries were drained more quickly. My research ensures that wireless communication is faster, more cost-efficient and fits into a smaller form factor. And then you have to think of: a thousand times faster, a thousand times smaller, so really big steps. There are essentially no limits to that. If you look at the current phones, it is mainly the battery that you drag along. I am now looking for solutions with very low power consumption. My ultimate goal is to remove the battery, but that is not yet the case. But making it much smaller is possible and also making the electronics much more cost-efficient. I'm thinking of techniques to achieve this, such as using small pulse signals instead of constant power supply in places where this is possible. You can compare that with targeted watering of plants. If you can water specific roots at the right moment, it works more efficiently than a constant stream of water for the whole plant. In order to achieve this, we often start again from scratch, by taking a closer look at the current processes and seeing where we can do it faster or more efficiently."
The results of Nauta's research cannot directly be admired as products in shops, he designs for designers. "I invent techniques that are applied in companies in real products. The great thing about my work at the university is that I don't have to take into account all the details of a real product. I work in a beautiful playground where I can invent and test crazier things. The nice thing is that companies now come to me with problems they can't solve. They give me money for research and the freedom to try wild things. Of course, I will make sure that the research results can be put to practical use by these companies, but they are fundamentally new. I really enjoy operating at the interface of science and industry, so I can try new things, and at the same time work together with people in companies who apply the knowledge in products. When I worked for Philips in the past, I also had a lot of contacts with universities, so I've always worked at that interface. But the nice thing is that I can now work with many more companies than Philips alone. And that's what I do."
Nauta's department delivers many graduates, who are also interesting for companies. The professor explains: "This has led to the fact that there are already 7 chip design companies that have established design centres on the business park, opposite the campus in Enschede or at least close to the university. And there are other companies that have plans to come here. In terms of research, I work with the big industries all over the world and provide them with knowledge. At the same time, employment is created for my graduating students. Before, they wanted to leave Enschede to find work in other regions, but now almost everyone stays here and those companies notice that. This has an attracting effect, these companies see what is happening in Twente and they don't want to miss their future workers. Companies know they have to be here if they want something in the field of analogue electronics. My dream is that all of the world's major analogue technologies come from Twente and that companies will settle here in order to absorb that knowledge and convert it into products.”
Nauta consciously says analogue electronics. As far as he is concerned, that is the big challenge for future electronics. "Improving the digital part of chips is mainly a matter of better software design. I find that less interesting and prefer to focus on the big problem for the advancement of chips, the analogue electronics. That may sound old-fashioned, but it's superhot right now. In the development of 5G and 6G communications, for example, better chips are needed. The electronics have to be fast, cost-efficient and able to operate at high frequency.”
That combination is very difficult, explains the professor: “One of the important applications of 5G is the Internet of Things (IoT), but we are also working on things that most people don't even think about yet. For example, we also want to be able to connect plants to the Internet. Some people still think this is crazy, but history has shown that this is a matter of time. People didn't even know what a smartphone was 10 years ago and certainly didn't expect to use it every day. Everything we see as science fiction now, the things we consider to be absurd and impossible to do, will be made in the future. I am convinced that we will continue to make electronics faster, cheaper and smaller, so we can change the world."
The relationship between research and education is very important to Nauta. "I teach a course on the design of electronic systems. Bachelor students learn how to build a system. To do this, they also have to design electronic components themselves, so they can see that a circuit has an effect on an entire system. I also have a lot of contact with my Master students, currently there are about 65 in my department. Students like the job very much and also see that companies come to Twente for them. My department and I spend a lot of time on education in order to stimulate that development. Some 'top researchers' think that teaching wastes their time, but I totally disagree with that. By training good people, you also have good PhD students, you attract companies and you create an entire ecosystem. Training people is just part of that. What is the use of research if there are no people who can do something with it? Companies have to work with it and I prefer to have people there who I have trained myself. Almost all of my PhD students also go on to work in the industry, which means that much of our research is directly applied. In this way, research and education form a whole; I cannot see one in isolation from the other."
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