Skip to Content

Go for the Glow

March 1, 1998

Astronomers at San Diego State University (SDSU) have made a name as builders of electronic light detectors for many of the world’s great telescopes-among them the Keck telescope in Hawaii and the Hale on California’s Palomar Mountain. Now these astronomers have aimed their technology at a new target: computer chips. Mounted on microscopes rather than telescopes, the detectors can find flaws in computer chips more easily-and potentially more cheaply-than existing methods.

In an industry where small technological improvements can make a big difference in profit margins, these detectors, which are sensitive to radiation in the infrared part of the spectrum, could have a significant impact.

“We think it should be quite useful,” says Robert Leach, an SDSU astronomer who helped pioneer electronic imaging devices for telescopes in the 1980s with SDSU engineer Frank Beale. Recognizing the range of potential applications, Frank Low, president of Infrared Laboratories of Tucson, Ariz., began working with SDSU scientists in the spring of 1996 to develop infrared detectors for use in chip manufacturing. The infrared emission microscope they developed, known by the acronym IREM 1, went on the market last fall.

IREM 1 is descended from an infrared detector Low’s company built that is now flying on the Hubble Space Telescope. As the microscope passes over the surface of a computer chip, any infrared radiation (heat) emitted by the chip collects in the 65,000 wells, or pixels, of a silicon wafer mounted at the end of the microscope. Sensors in each well measure the amount of light collected; in a matter of seconds, the information from these pixels combines to generate an image on a computer monitor.

The devices could solve a nettlesome problem for computer manufacturers, the efficient testing of new chips before they reach consumers. Even the tiniest flaw in a computer chip-perhaps a fleck of dust built into the circuitry or a place where insulation has eroded-can make electrical current jump between transistors, leaking heat and undercutting performance, Low explains.

To find such flaws, manufacturers put their chips through a series of tests, including running current through them and scrutinizing them with detectors of light. But since flawed chips give off more heat than light, the leakage of heat is much easier to detect. “In fact, the effect is fairly dramatic-the thing lights up,” says Leach.

He suggests that chip manufacturers could use IREM 1 to scan for chips that are obviously flawed, saving more complicated and expensive tests for chips that pass this crude “first cut,” and argues that the new device might lead to improvements in chip design by identifying recurring flaws in specific microcomponents on the chip.

Such improvements are “absolutely critical to the competitiveness of these companies,” says Jeff Weir, a spokesman for the Semiconductor Industry Association, the principal trade association for American chip manufacturers. “Anything that makes it quicker and easier to find a faulty chip is important. Things that can expedite production are money makers.”

According to Low, the inventors have already sold IREMs to two companies, one of which bought several of the devices. The first to buy them, one of the world’s largest chipmakers, is testing the device in its production process. (Low declined to name the companies, citing confidentiality contracts.)

Infrared Labs is now planning a second-generation array that will be dramatically faster than the the IREM 1. With 16 times as many pixels-1.04 million compared with the IREM 1’s 65,000-it will enable the device to view 16 times as much chip space at once.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

DeepMind’s cofounder: Generative AI is just a phase. What’s next is interactive AI.

“This is a profound moment in the history of technology,” says Mustafa Suleyman.

What to know about this autumn’s covid vaccines

New variants will pose a challenge, but early signs suggest the shots will still boost antibody responses.

Human-plus-AI solutions mitigate security threats

With the right human oversight, emerging technologies like artificial intelligence can help keep business and customer data secure

Next slide, please: A brief history of the corporate presentation

From million-dollar slide shows to Steve Jobs’s introduction of the iPhone, a bit of show business never hurt plain old business.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.