Microwave Journal
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Benelux - At the Heart of Europe's Microwave Design Community and the EU Government Research Framework

December 14, 2020

This year, European Microwave Week was to take place at a new location in the Netherlands - Utrecht, which is about 35 km south-east from the capital, Amsterdam. In common with its better-known neighbor, Utrecht has a network of picturesque inner-city canals and an attractive selection of shops and restaurants, as well as museums and ancient landmarks (some dating back as long ago as Roman times). However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it will take place virtually. The EuMW and Horizon House teams have selected a virtual trade show platform and are coordinating a full conference and engaging exhibition online.

The theme, The Art of Microwaves, continues to support the activities surrounding the event this year. In this article, we profile many of the RF/microwave companies and organizations shaping our industry. The Netherlands and surrounding region are the home to several government and space research organizations, fitting of our theme this month for EuMW and government/military electronics, plus many other semiconductor, test and software companies.

Economically, the Netherlands is part of the Benelux region, which also comprises Belgium and the tiny grand duchy of Luxembourg. The Treaty of the Benelux Economic Union was signed in 1958, and became operative in 1960, making Benelux the first free international labor market, with unrestricted movement of capital and services. These principles provided inspiration during the founding of the European Economic Community - now the European Union (EU) - effectively placing Benelux and its values at the heart of Europe.

It also plays a key role in the government of the EU, as some of the committee meetings and plenary sessions of the European Parliament are held in Brussels, while its administrative offices are in Luxembourg, including those of CORDIS (Community Research and Development Information Service). CORDIS coordinates and disseminates the results from projects funded by the EU’s framework programs for research and innovation, including Horizon 2020. Over the years, the pan-European framework programs have produced a wealth of innovation in RF and microwave technology, including work on compound semiconductor devices as well as on some of the fundamental technologies on which wireless and cellular technology has been built.

GOVERNMENT RESEARCH AND COLLABORATION

One of the most prominent participants in the Netherlands RF and microwave community is TNO, which in full stands for Nederlandse Organisatie voor Toegepast Natuurwetenschappelijk Onderzoek, an independent research organization based in The Hague, which employs over 3,400 professionals. TNO also plays a huge part in this European Microwave Week, as Frank van den Bogaart, principal consultant at TNO, is the president of the European Microwave Association and his TNO colleague, Frank van Vliet, is the EuMW 2020 general chair.

TNO’s stated mission is to connect people and knowledge, to create innovations that boost the competitive strength of industry and the well-being of society in a sustainable way. It is achieving this by focusing on driving change and improvement in nine socially driven areas, which include the built environment, sustainability, defense/safety/security, energy, healthy living, industry, ICT, strategic analysis and policy and transportation. Obviously microwave technology, specifically 5G, has a part to play in almost all of these end-use applications.

In October 2020, TNO and Columbia University posted a position paper that focuses on detection and response to oil- and gas-related methane emissions, which have been the subject of increasing focus on the part of industry and the public policy community. It addresses the significance of methane emissions for the climate, and the challenges of detecting and accurately quantifying methane emissions. It then explores the evolving capabilities of satellite-based methane detection and monitoring systems, which are expected to advance rapidly in the coming years, and can be especially powerful when used in concert with aerial and ground-based monitoring systems. It concludes with a discussion of the implications of the changing satellite detection landscape for the oil and gas industry, the finance and investment community and the realm of public policy.

In June 2020 it was announced that a fully-fledged 5G Standalone test network, which is more advanced than today’s commercially available 5G networks, had been commissioned at TNO, to support innovations in the vertical sectors supported by 5G and beyond. The TNO 3.5 GHz 5G test network enables testing of advanced use cases such as augmented/virtual reality, high speed video connections, self-driving cars and drones, demonstrating latencies as low as 10 ms. The test network combines Ericsson’s 5G base stations with a cloud-native open 5G core network based on Fraunhofer’s Open5GCore, running on TNO’s cloud platform in containers orchestrated by Kubernetes.

GOVERNMENT SPONSORED SPACE RESEARCH

Figure 1

Figure 1 Prototype 2.6 m mesh-reflector antenna being tested in ESA's Hertz chamber at its ESTEC technical center in the Netherlands.

Figure 2

Figure 2 An engineering model of a hiber CubeSat inside ESA's Hertz chamber at ESTEC in the Netherlands (courtesy of ESA).

The Netherlands’ leading role in Europe means that it is also home to the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) in Noordwijk, run by the European Space Agency (ESA). Figure 1 shows a prototype 2.6 m diameter metal-mesh antenna reflector, produced as part of ESA’s advanced techniques for mesh reflector with improved radiation pattern performance (AMPER) project. This represents a big step forward for the European space sector, because versions can be manufactured to reproduce any surface pattern that antenna designers require - something that was previously possible only with traditional solid antennas. This is needed so that large antennas that might be too bulky to fit inside a launcher fairing can be deployed in orbit. The basic paraboloid convex shape of a solid satellite antenna is distorted with additional peaks and valleys to contour the RF beam, typically to boost signal gain over target countries and minimize it beyond their borders, it was a challenge to reproduce this shaping using a mesh reflector design. This shaped mesh reflector design is based on tension members supported by a peripheral truss structure, which enables decoupling of the shaped surface and the structure - a design that can be implemented for any size of reflector, for any frequency ranging from P-Band to Ka-Band, and for either deployable or fixed reflector technology.

Together with the Netherlands Space Office (NSO), ESTEC also supports ESA’s incubation program in the Netherlands, ESA BIC Noordwijk, which is a hub set up to nurture both novice and experienced entrepreneurs with technology ambitions in the field of space. Although there are 22 such centers throughout Europe, ESA BIC Noordwijk was the first to be established in 2003, since then it has supported more than 120 space startups. One of these is hiber - a network of small satellites that provides IoT connectivity with global coverage. hiber plans to deploy a constellation of CubeSats to provide low cost IoT services around the world (see Figure 2).

SEMICONDUCTOR CLUSTER

Two of the major RF semiconductor companies in the Netherlands - NXP and Ampleon - were both originally spun out from Philips, the Eindhoven-based multinational giant that was once a leader across many sectors of consumer and professional electronics, but is now specialized in healthcare technology. The Philips legacy means there is a concentration of semiconductor expertise around Eindhoven and Nijmegen, which continues to foster new startups like Altum RF and Staal Technologies.

NXP’s flagship design and manufacturing operations are located at the Eindhoven High Tech Campus in the Netherlands, where its R&D activities include the development of IP blocks, design tools and test and verification methodologies, as well as some product design. Most of the RF work, however, takes place in Nijmegen, where the ICN8 8-in. wafer fab - manufacturing over 500,000 wafers per year - is located, along with further R&D facilities. NXP’s Smart Antenna Solutions team in Nijmegen is working on the development of mobile RF front end solutions. Its Automotive Radio team is also working at RF, making RF CMOS-based radio receivers and software-defined radio solutions.

At last year’s European Microwave Week in Paris, NXP announced its RF Airfast power multi-chip module range for the development of massive MIMO (mMIMO) active antenna systems for 5G base stations. In October 2020 NXP announced that NEC had selected RF Airfast modules for use in a mMIMO 5G antenna radio unit for Rakuten Mobile, one of Japan’s leading mobile network operators. The Airfast range includes LDMOS Doherty power amplifier modules, GaAs/SiGe pre-driver modules and receiver modules for cellular frequency bands from 2.3 to 3.8 GHz, with output power from 3 to 5 W. Designed with a common footprint across frequency and power, they can enable a fast time-to-market for OEMs and mobile network operators, as well as offering higher levels of integration to reduce power amplifier size, shorten design cycles and simplify manufacturing. This fall they announced the opening of a 6-in. GaN fab in Arizona in the U.S. to address 5G demand and expand their GaN portfolio of products.

Ampleon specializes in RF power devices, offering a range of discrete transistors, MMICs, pallets and modules in LDMOS as well as GaN technology for a range of applications, such as mobile broadband infrastructure, broadcasting, CO2 lasers and plasma, MRI, particle accelerators, radar and air-traffic control, RF cooking and defrosting, RF heating and plasma lighting. Ampleon was created in 2015 as a spinoff of the NXP/Freescale merger. Headquartered in Nijmegen, it has more than 1,650 employees worldwide. Its latest device is the BLF989E RF power transistor, which uses Ampleon’s ninth-generation high-voltage (50 V) LDMOS process technology and is designed for use in UHF TV transmitters. With a peak power capability more than 1 kW, the BLF989E provides an average (DVB-T) output power of 180 W, shrinking the size of digital TV amplifiers by 20 percent. An ultra-wideband Doherty application circuit for the device enables it to achieve 50 percent efficiency and can cover the complete 470 to 700 MHz digital TV transmission band with a single amplifier, reducing service costs for broadcast network operators. It also works with digital pre-distortion to provide the high linearity required when transmitting digital TV signals with very low bit error rates.

Altum RF in Eindhoven is a relative newcomer to the RF and microwave semiconductor industry. Founded in 2019, it sells a range of bare die and packaged chips, including power amplifiers operating at E-Band (71 to 75 GHz and 81 to 86 GHz). In June 2020, Altum RF introduced its latest high efficiency linear amplifier for high data-rate applications such as mmWave 5G and 24 GHz ISM applications. Operating in the range 22 to 30 GHz, the ARF1010Q4 delivers 28 dB of linear gain and 36 dBm OIP3 at +20 dBm output. Packaged in a 4 x 4 QFN, it requires only a positive voltage supply, and can deliver 1 W output power at 26 GHz with 23 percent power added efficiency.

Staal Technologies (formerly Omniradar) is also based in Eindhoven. Its flagship product is the RIC60A 60 GHz single-chip radar, which is capable of detecting speed, range, shape and material over a range of 0 to 5,000 mm to an accuracy of 2 mm and a resolution of 21 mm. Power consumption is less than 1 W, making it suitable for battery powered devices for the IoT, including Smart City traffic monitoring and waste management, healthcare and collision avoidance and proximity sensing in robotics. The SiGe integrated circuit is packaged in a QFN44 package measuring 7 mm square, with integral antennas, and can be configured as either an FMCW radar or a Doppler radar. An integrated dual receiver provides angle-of-arrival measurement. It features I- and Q-receiver channels for identification of direction of motion and the transmit power amplifier, receive low-noise amplifier and IF amplifiers are all included.

SOFTWARE/TEST AND MEASUREMENT

Figure 3

Figure 3 A multiphysics model of a cascaded cavity filter operating in the mmWave 5G band, including temperature changes and thermal stress.

Another company with a major presence in the Netherlands is COMSOL, whose multiphysics simulation software can be used for modeling designs, devices and processes in all fields of engineering, including electromagnetics. COMSOL is headquartered in Stockholm and recently previewed its upcoming release of COMSOL Multiphysics® version 5.6 that brings faster and more memory-efficient solvers, better CAD assembly handling, application layout templates and a range of new graphics features. For RF engineers, the RF Module and Wave Optics Module provide a new option for port sweeps, enabling faster computations of full S-parameters or transmission and reflection coefficient matrices. This functionality can be applied to the analysis of passive 5G components such as microwave filters with a large number of ports (see Figure 3). A new modeling tool for approximate asymptotic scattering allows for quick far-field and radar cross section analysis for convex-shaped objects. A new set of postprocessing tools makes it easier to visualize and analyze polarization, with important applications for a variety of periodic structures including metamaterials for optics and microwaves. The new version of the Ray Optics Module includes faster ray tracing and specialized tools for scattering from surfaces and within volumetric domains.

The Benelux region is home to no less than four manufacturers of microwave absorbers, shielding materials and anechoic chambers. Holland Shielding Systems in Dordrecht, the Netherlands, makes a range of EMC and EMI shielding materials, Faraday cages and test enclosures and absorbers. Comtest Engineering in Zoeterwoude, the Netherlands, builds anechoic chambers, EMC test chambers and antenna test ranges for a wide range of industrial and research applications. Earlier this year, Comtest Engineering entered into a teaming agreement with Amplifier Research (AR) to provide a single testing solution for their EMC customers. The partnership combines AR’s knowledge of high performance EMC instrumentation and Comtest’s experience in constructing EMC chambers to provide a turnkey service, from design to completion of a fully operational test facility.

Dutch Microwave Absorber Systems (DMAS), also in Zoeterwoude, was founded by Bas de Groot, the managing director of Comtest, and is an independent supplier of high performance expanded polystyrene microwave absorbers suitable for anechoic and semi-anechoic chambers for both EMC and broadband microwave test. Unlike conventional polyurethane based absorbers, DMAS polystyrene absorbers do not need to include toxic fire-retardant chemicals.

Over the border in Westerlo, Belgium, E&C Anechoic Chambershas a long history, as part of Emerson and Cuming, in developing and manufacturing microwave absorbing materials and anechoic chambers. It is now part of German group Albatross Projects, which itself plans and builds anechoic chambers.

Also related to antenna measurements, MegiQ in Eindhoven sells low cost VNAs and radiation measurement systems for communications systems up to 6 GHz. RMS-0660 (see Figure 4), for example, is a compact 600 MHz to 6 GHz radiation measurement system compact test system that performs three-axis antenna radiation pattern measurements in relatively small non-anechoic spaces. The RMS system has an accuracy of ± 1 dB, with an additional uncertainty of 1 to 2 dB expected due to reflections. The repeatability of measurements is ±0.5 dB, with no user calibration required.

Figure 4

Figure 4 MegiQ compact 600 MHz to 6 GHz radiation measurement system compact test system.

BELGIUM – A CENTER FOR CHIP INNOVATION

Leuven in Belgium is home to the headquarters of IMEC, a research and innovation hub whose mission is to provide infrastructure to connect bright minds internationally, across industry and academia. IMEC has 12 offices on three continents - six of them across Belgium and the Netherlands, with the others in the U.S. and spread across Asia Pacific.

Figure 5

Figure 5 IMEC’s 60 GHz radar design, for vital sign monitoring and gesture detection.

At August’s virtual IEEE RFIC conference, IMEC presented a mmWave motion detection radar at 60 GHz, integrated on a standard 28 nm CMOS process, that is optimized for vital sign monitoring and gesture recognition (see Figure 5). Achieving 20 mm range resolution, the compact 4.15 mm2 transceiver chip consumes only 62 mW of DC power, making it suitable for integration into small, battery powered devices. As an FMCW radar its high modulation bandwidth of 7.2 GHz gives it ultra-fine resolution suitable for 3D sensing of finger motions, hand swiping and gestures. Its suitability has also been demonstrated for multi-target detection, heartbeat detection at a 5 m distance and accurate tracking of a pedestrian’s position and velocity. A quick start-up time (1 µs) supports aggressive duty-cycling for further power reduction. A reference module design is available for the single-channel radar, including the antenna. In the rapidly growing field of eHealth, there will be a range of smart IoT applications this radar sensor could be used for, like baby monitoring, senior care, patient monitoring and sports performance, as well as more general applications like worker safety. This research received funding from the European Community’s PRYSTINE project, which is aimed at developing sensors for safer autonomous driving.

Melexis, based in Ieper, Belgium, has a long-standing reputation for designing and developing mixed signal ICs for low-power radio applications like RFID, wireless remote entry and industrial, scientific and medical applications. One of its most popular RF products is the MLX71122 multi-channel programmable FSK/FM/ASK double-conversion superheterodyne receiver IC for the 315, 433, 868 or 915 MHz ISM frequency bands.

Tusk IC is an IC design house based in Antwerp, Belgium, specializing in mmWave IC design. Its mission is to speed up the development cycle and reduce time-to-market for its clients, focusing on silicon mmWave circuit designs from 10 up to 300 GHz+ and beyond, with the ability to measure and validate prototypes up to 1.1 THz. Its experience ranges from transistor-level to packaging interface in advanced CMOS, SOI and SiGe processes. Tusk IC was founded in January 2018 as a spinoff from the ESAT-MICAS research group at KU Leuven, where the company’s four founders had obtained their PhD degrees, specializing in mmWave CMOS integrated circuits and systems.

CONCLUSION

The position of the Benelux region at the heart of Europe, both geographically and administratively, has fostered its open and collaborative approach to government/scientific research and development, as evidenced by the success of the two main hubs, TNO and IMEC, as well as ESTEC for space-focused research. Furthermore, the lasting legacy of Philips Semiconductors has influenced a generation of new enterprises that are using a variety of mainly silicon-based chip technologies to power the smart applications of the 21st Century.