2 January 2014
Over his extensive research career, Lord Broers has been involved in many remarkable advances and projects, but one of his greatest research achievements was in the early 1960s during his PhD at the University of Cambridge when he was studying the in-situ ion-etching of surfaces using a scanning electron microscope. He discovered, by accident, that using the SEM to take a picture modified the surface, so he then started to use the machine to write patterns as well. He vividly remembers that first experiment in which he wrote lines on a thin coat of gold on top of a silicon wafer that, when etched by an ion beam, left 70nm wide gold wires.
“That was the smallest potentially useful component of a device that had ever been made. I think that was quite important and a lot of people were interested. It was very early days in the semiconductor industry when device dimensions were more than 5 micron and here was this ability to go way sub-micron.”
Lord Broers completed his PhD in 1965, the same year that Electronics Letters was launched.
“1965 was the dawn of a completely new era. We knew by then that you were going to be able to crowd electronic circuits on to a single bit of silicon. The world was extremely excited by that. It was opening up infinite possibilities. We didn’t know how far it was going to go – we couldn’t possibly have dreamed that in forty years’ time a transistor would cost a one hundred millionth of what it cost at the time.”
Following his PhD, Lord Broers went to work for the IBM research lab where he continued his work in lithography, building microscopes and equipment for the fabrication of miniature components.
Lord Broers was involved in many devices projects where dimensions below a micron were needed. These included superconducting SQUIDs and Josephson microbridges, and surface acoustic wave transducers, but mostly he concentrated on the miniaturisation that was driving the progress of silicon integrated circuits. The degree of these advances in microelectronics, he recalls, really was a surprise to everyone.
“It just went on and on and on, following Gordon Moore’s observation in the late 60s. At the time that was just a fun observation - I know that he and others would have been amazed that it was still going on in the 90s let alone after the turn of the century. Surely it has to be one of the greatest achievements of mankind…eventually enabling the internet, and all of those technologies that have completely changed how human beings live. It had an impact on health, communications, entertainment, transport…there’s almost nothing that you can look at that hasn’t been changed by that advance.”
Lord Broers returned to Cambridge University in 1984 to further develop some of his fabrication methods from IBM. He was knighted in 1998, granted a Life Peerage in 2004, and went on to Chair the Science and Technology Committee of the House of Lords.
As part of his role in the UK Government, he has been involved in discussions on some of the big challenges: joining up the transport system so that it exchanges data and is dynamically correctable; and the next generations of networks for communications which need to become demand modifiable if we are to continue expanding in our use of the Internet. He sees the biggest barrier to success for new technologies such as these being the cost, and that we must go forward very intelligently and pick the most important and promising areas.
The area with the most potential at the moment in Lord Broers’ eyes is the application of engineering – from optical fibres down to the chemically sensitive transistors – to medical science. Energy is another big area that he thinks technology will be the solution to, but that we should focus on what we can predict and proceed with caution rather than going down channels that are going to be impractical which he comments is happening too often at the moment.
Another big challenge is to inspire and support the next generation of engineers. Lord Broers himself was inspired by his father and he recalls being fascinated, at the age of three, when his father showed him how to make a simple circuit with a torch battery, a light bulb and a piece of wire. Later, at boarding school, his father helped him to build a little one valve amplifier for his crystal set so that he could connect up four of his friends. By the time he was in his teens he had a business building hi-fi sets for wealthy music lovers in Melbourne where he lived at the time.
“We’ve got to adjust our courses so that young people learn how to practise something (any aspect of engineering) before they are made to learn all of the underlying theory. I think I was extraordinarily lucky as I was building little electronic systems even when I was ten years of age…so when I had the opportunity at University to really understand what was happening inside that valve, and how you could really design that circuit, I was just fascinated.”
Alongside this, Lord Broers believes that we have a big marketing job to do. A lot of progress is already being made: he has been part of the introduction of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering this year – a global prize that recognises outstanding advances in engineering that have changed the world. The 2013 prize was awarded jointly to Louis Pouzin, Robert Kahn, Vint Cerf, Tim Berners Lee and Marc Andressen for their work that led to the internet and world wide web.
“We hope [this prize] inspires the young to realise that, while we had a grand past, we’ve got a grand present and will have a grand future... we’ve just got to get it over to them that it’s a magnificent time to be a creative engineer and to drive things forward.”
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