22.10.2023 - Innovation, Photonics & Smart materials

Latvia is researching opportunities in photonic microchips

One year ago, at the 5G Techritory forum, representatives from various industries signed a memorandum of understanding on developing Latvia’s ability to manufacture microchips for electronics, or the so-called Microchip Memorandum. Over this period, opportunities in the Latvian microchip industries have been researched, and a path towards photonic microchips, in which Latvian scientists already have significant international achievements, has crystallised.

Gundars Kokins, specialist at the Innovation Ecosystem Development Unit of Riga Technical University (RTU), emphasises that the industry has not let up on microchips over the course of this year. One of the most significant turning points is a study on the development of a Latvian semiconductor strategy for the next 10 years.

In this study, RTU and the University of Latvia’s Institute of Solid State Physics won a competition organised by the Investment and Development Agency of Latvia to undertake the research, and are developing a research plan. It aims to determine Latvia’s strengths, available equipment, industry potential, operational areas, and global trends and opportunities so that Latvia can operate in its most suitable niche.

Kokins emphasises that this kind of study is important in order to understand the geographical, physical and technological limitations and the potential microchip technology for research, use and manufacture in Latvia.

Studying Latvia’s potential

Kokins explains that there are various platforms in which microchips work: nickel silicide, polymers, etc. There are also multiple uses and levels of complexity: some microchips are used in car manufacture, others in telecommunications.

“We want to find the platform in which Latvia can be the most powerful,” he emphasises. The current opinion is that this could be photonic microchips.The expert explains that these are a type of microchip through which information passes optically, rather than along copper and nickel wires. Just like optic cables, photonic microchips send information faster, have less information loss, and use less energy.

“Copper and nickel get very hot. You have to think about cooling, which uses more energy. Photonic chips don’t have this problem. These kinds of microchips have enormous potential in the telecommunications sphere, making equipment more energy efficient and enabling faster data transmission,” explains Kokins.

To illustrate the need for these kinds of microchips, he mentions the relevance of artificial intelligence. Recently, this technology has attracted unprecedented interest, but operating artificial intelligence in data centres requires a huge amount of energy. It is estimated that data centres use between 1% and 3% of the world’s total energy consumption, and artificial intelligence takes up the lion’s share of this. In anticipation of this technology continuing to grow, there will be a large need for energy-efficient microchips. “Photonic chips could be of great use in this industry,” explains Kokins.

We already hold world records

Photonic microchips do not merely have potential — there is precedent. In 2023 the RTU Faculty of Electronics and Telecommunications achieved two world records in data centre interconnect technologies using silicone photonic microchips.

“This significantly increases interest in collaborating from global partners, which should now be developed as the first phase of growing this industry in Latvia. This is the first chance to attract investment for undertaking scientifically rigorous work, while also bringing small and medium businesses, startups, scientific institutions and investors on board. According to current estimates, when one job is created in the microchip industry, it creates eight more jobs for highly-valued specialists in related fields,” RTU Faculty of Electronics and Telecommunications professor Oskars Ozoliņš has previously stated.

One of the cornerstones for Latvia’s economic transformation
Ozoliņš believes that the development of a high-added-value industry is a cornerstone for the transformation of Latvia’s economy. Latvia must therefore work specifically to be included in the innovation value chain. In a high-added-value industry, the main advantage when it comes to competition is scientific capital.

“Latvia is currently in a great position to offer its potential to develop microchips, a segment which continues to grow and which will peak within the next 10 years,” says Ozolinš.

Kokins adds that several young talented microchip specialists are on the RTU team: Toms Salgals, Ints Murāns, Kristaps Rubuls, Kaspars Zaķis and Armands Ostrovskis, who were trained in a laboratory on Ķīpsala and with partners overseas. “As we upgrade RTU’s infrastructure and equipment, we plan on training and developing these strategically important talents and keeping them in Latvia,” he emphasises.

Kokins explains that the University of Latvia’s Institute of Solid State Physics is working with different chip platforms, developing research into polymer photonic microchip technology. “Although the platforms differ, both research institutions see a bright future in photonic microchips,” he says.

There are also many businesses with experience in the microchip value chain. Kokins gives Mikrotik, Sidrabe, Wiseberg and Kepp EU as examples. “There are many more businesses working in the microchip value chain who have good knowledge about the industry. Although it may seem from the outside like nothing is happening in Latvia in this sphere, that is not the case,” he adds.

Excellent basis for growing the industry in Latvia

“Although we have achieved international excellence in many industries, Latvia often lacks ambition on a state-wide scale. Certainly, many people have no idea that Latvia once manufactured and still manufactures microchips, although still based on the older technology. Therefore, when Europe announced its intention to strengthen its microchip sovereignty and issue extensive financing for research and development, this stirred interest in Latvia too,” explains Elīna Lidere, Innovations Ecosystems Lead at LMT.

Author: Anda Asere (www.labsloflatvia.com)
Photo: Shutterstock

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