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Interview: Giving vision to chips

April 17, 2011

The combination of microelectronics with photonics has revolutionised the way modern inventors contemplate scientific ideas. Technologies deploying this hybrid marvel are rapidly advancing in almost every area of engineering, both in the industrial and the consumer domains.

Muhammad Farhan Siddiqui, a graduate of the National University of Sciences and Technology in electrical engineering, took fancy to these emerging technologies and did his master’s degree from the Florida Institute of Technology, USA, majoring in microelectronics with subjects ranging from optical electronics, VLSI processing, IC design to microelectronics fabrication. Employed with a leading private company, he provides technical solutions to the industry to improve efficiency, quality and productivity using state-of-the-art engineering products and software.

Considering native trends, microelectronics and photonics are seldom heard of on the local front.

What made you opt for these subjects for majors abroad?

During my college, I had a compelling fetish for electronics and lasers for the promise they held for the future. Electronics has transformed the way we live and continues to alter the lifestyle of people making it efficient and manageable. Electronic marvels such as computers which used to weigh tonnes have now been reduced to ounces with enhanced power and capacity. Microelectronics and photonics was the way I had to take.

What were the revelations of microelectronics and photonics and how do you factor them into the local industry and your professional life?

During microelectronics studies at the Florida Institute of Technology (FIT), I had the opportunity to actually fabricate silicon wafers which taught me the basics of chip manufacturing. With the quality of engineers in our country, there is a lot of potential for establishing chip fabrication to cater to not just the local market but also the global demand. In photonics, the efficient conversion of electrical signals into light and reconverting them back can be utilised in environments which are risky and hazardous. Furthermore, over a single optical cable we can deploy multiple optical signals, immune to electrical interference, while reducing the cost of cabling tremendously.

Can you illustrate some uses of optical electronics and microelectronics giving simple examples?

Expensive load cells are utilised to calculate the weight of any object. These can now be replaced with the more economical optoelectronic circuits using optical fibre cable coupled with a transceiver to calculate the load. Similar technologies can be used in forensic and medical labs for verification of PH of various chemicals and liquids. Application of laser technology would help our manufacturing industry in numerous areas of precision and quality.

How can the industry benefit from photonics and lasers?

For any industry to thrive and establish a steady market, precision in production is a necessity. Lasers can perform accurately and with speed, which is why these are deployed in the industry. Some examples are: laser cutting, laser welding, laser photo-coagulation surgery, atomic clocks etc. An interesting example is a device called the ‘Scan station’, a laser scanner which acquires 3D soft images of any constructed area, its dimensions and area including the features of the structure in a matter of minutes.

What kind of opportunities does the field of microelectronics and photonics provide to fresh engineers?

In the current era, life is all about adopting new technologies which help in improving efficiency and minimising cost. With modern industrial units being introduced perpetually around the world, we have to be ready to embrace newer challenges of maintenance and upkeep. Therefore, young engineers should start emancipating and instead of opting for traditional subjects should choose modern technologies so that they can avail better opportunities in the local and foreign job market.

What role can the government and the HEC play to improve the professional standard of our young engineering students?

In a state of unison, both can give a tremendous boost to the country’s technical strength in modern technologies. They can arrange valuable exchange programmes with universities abroad which are regarded for their didactic acumen in microelectronics, optical electronics and photonics. It can facilitate our engineers to expand their vision and harness higher technologies. This would not just help our engineers remain abreast of the latest developments but will also enable them to contribute towards the country’s prosperity.

What is your advice for the young engineering students?

Considering the diverse enormity of academic subjects, opting for specialisation in a particular line of work is the key factor to success. Regular reading or browsing for new developments can also enhance the cross-trade appreciation. Logical understanding of technical subjects and hands-on experience is an engineer’s salvation and can only be achieved through initiative and perseverance.

What is the future of microelectronics and photonics?

Chip makers continue to pack more and more transistors by refining the manufacturing process which is currently transiting through the 32 nanometre-mark (Intel’s Sandy Bridge packs nearly a billion transistors) which is likely to close-in on the 11 nanometre-mark by 2015. These high density chips combined with photonics would eventually provide stimulus to fulfil the ultimate dream of quantum computing and advanced artificial intelligence.