x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Race to produce Gulf's first microprocessing chip

The race to produce the Gulf's first microprocessing chip is almost at an end, with competing teams vying for lucrative deals based on their research. But behind the rivalry lies a common goal - to ensure Abu Dhabi is at the cutting edge of the new technology.

Electrical engineering professors Nasser Qaddooumi and Lutfi Albasha discuss details of the microchip they are developing with undergraduate students at the American University of Sharjah.
Electrical engineering professors Nasser Qaddooumi and Lutfi Albasha discuss details of the microchip they are developing with undergraduate students at the American University of Sharjah.

Two UAE groups - one in Al Ain and the other in Sharjah - are entering the final stages of a race to make the Gulf's first microchips.

But while the Al Ain group was first to pass into the crucial production stage, it looks as if their rivals in Sharjah will be first to profit from the technology.

SenseHere, a company working with the American University of Sharjah (AUS), said earlier this week that it expected to "tape out" its chips - a key stage in the design process - within weeks.

Yesterday United Arab Emirates University beat it to the punch, announcing that its chips had already been taped out.

Taping out is the point at which the photographic template for a circuit is sent for manufacture - essentially, the point at which the design is fixed and sample chips can be made and tested.

Adnan Harb, an assistant professor at UAE University in Al Ain, said yesterday that his chip - intended to help the paralysed regain movement - was ready for testing.

"I have it in my hands," he said.

But Mr Harb's work may take years to bring to the manufacturing stage on an open market. So far, he said, his group had not seriously discussed any commercial applications.

The first to do that may be SenseHere, which expects to have a final design to send for fabrication at one of Abu Dhabi's Advanced Technology Investment Company (Atic) foundries in July.

The group will initially make about 1,000 chips, and once that project is out of the way, there will be another that is potentially much more lucrative.

SenseHere intends to integrate its microprocessor with a wireless motion sensor being developed in conjunction with American University of Sharjah.

The result will be vibration-sensing "system on a chip" that can be cheaply integrated into building projects. It will use radio waves to detect vibrations in buildings, ships, defence systems and nuclear power stations.

SenseHere's chief executive, Tan Rasab, hopes the end product will be used across the region. "Our chip will mean that household appliances use less electricity," he said.

Work on the sensor is well advanced. Nasser Qaddoumi, a Palestinian associate professor at AUS, began work on it a year ago along with Amin el Sinawi, an associate professor of mechanical engineering. The tie-up between SenseHere and AUS began in October.

"We started the tests, brought in students to prove the concept and we've been successful," Mr Qaddoumi said. "It's now time to integrate the system on a chip". That could be ready by next summer.

Four AUS undergraduates have joined the SenseHere research team, and will continue to work on the project after they graduate in June. Two former students with experience in chip design have also joined.

One is Hadef al Shamsi, an Emirati student at AUS. "There are opportunities here for us," he said. "It's an Emirati example that will welcome others to hard work."

Both projects are part of Abu Dhabi's push into semiconductor technology, which the country hopes will eventually form a crucial part of its economy to replace a reliance on oil.

There are hopes, too, that the joint project could serve as an example for others.

"This is the first collaboration at the highest level of integration between government, business and university," said Prof Yousef al Assaf, dean of the department of electrical engineering at AUS.

"In SenseHere we have a partner. We speak the same language."

The tie-up will give SenseHere first right of refusal on any patents or intellectual property that come out of it. AUS announced that it would support SenseHere's application for a patent on the sensor - a step Mr al Assaf said was all too rare here.

"The culture of the commercialisation of technology transfer is still lacking.

"As a university, we need more mechanisms to commercialise our work."

hhamid@thenational.ae