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Getting personal about chips

October 25, 2010

Jack Ganssle-October 25, 2010

Make your own ICs using, well, much less than a big fab.

At the recent Boston ESC I met Chris Gammell, an interesting young feller who runs, among other things, The Amp Hour , a blog site that has always-interesting content. His latest entry sports referred me to a video from noted life hacker Jeri Ellsworth which shows how one can build a personal chip using not much more than a kiln and a lot of clever tricks. http://www.youtube.com/user/jeriellsworth .

It’s an 8 minute flick, far longer than the sort I usually watch. Who has the time to view all of the videos passed around on the Internet? I sure don’t, and only rarely visit youtube, and then only after a recommendation from a trusted source. But this one is quite breathtaking.

Turns out you don’t need a $5 billion fab to build your own IC. Intel watch out! Instead she uses, for instance, a CPU fan. She tapes the chip onto the hub of the fan and spins off the phosphorosilica. Simple, effective, and insanely cool.

Of course, the geometry is somewhat more coarse than 45 nanometers (nm). At the end of the video she shows a five transistor chip that’s a couple of inches long. And the next video on her site is a demo of the part. But it works. And that’s astonishing in this day when we assume chips come from Digikey, and are manufactured somewhere on the planet in fabulously complex fabs.

I sometimes wonder if electronics has become so complex that it has lost its appeal to youngsters. In my youth we built ham radios and other gear using discrete transistors, vacuum tubes, and the smallest of small scale ICs.

Today one must wrestle with surface mount technology (SMT) and datasheets a thousand pages long. But this video shows that being smart and inventive, and, alas, being young and not bound by convention, can keep the cool in this cool field.

The video is also one of the most dramatic uses of PowerPoint I have seen to date. Cliff Stohl gave a couple of ESC keynotes years ago using notes scribbled on his arm. Jeri’s technique is a bit more sophisticated, but is eminently clear, much more so than so many bulleted lectures I’ve attended.

Recommended. Especially for those who get jaded by the fearsome complexity of modern electronics

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. Contact him at jack@ganssle.com. His website is www.ganssle.com.

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