open source hardware Students develop RISC-V chip exclusively with open source tools
Twelve students from the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) in Lyngby have developed a RISC-V-based dual-core chip that has been developed exclusively using open source tools – from design to manufacturing process.
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In a special 13-week course, 12 students from the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) developed their own dual-core chip based on RISC-V processor IP. The highlight: The chip was not only equipped with open source cores and developed using open source design tools, but was even manufactured using the open source process: the team used the open source Skywater PDK to translate an RTL design of the chip into in appropriate functional patterns for manufacturable semiconductors. In summer, the building block must be made of Skywater Foundry using the template made this way.
This is the first time that a chip has not only been designed but also produced entirely and solely using open source tools and methods. The chip was created during a 13-week special course in chip design at DTU, which was also held for the first time this semester.
The chip designed by the students has two processor cores: a 32-bit RISC-V CPU and the university’s proprietary multiprocessor platform called Patmos, which is specifically optimized for time-sensitive, deterministic tasks. While the Patmos core is supposed to take care of timing-relevant processes, such as controlling the rotors of a flying drone, the RISC-V core assumes all other, less time-critical computer tasks.
“The time has come for open source hardware”
The open source tools are part of the Skywater 130nm Process Design Kit (PDK) with a complete Apache 2.0 licensed open source RTL2GDS design stack called openLANE developed by Efabless. A standardized test harness is also open and freely available, enabling easy and cost-effective replication of verification results.
“For years we talked about open source software. Now comes the open source hardware,” says Professor Martin Schoeberl, who leads the course at DTU together with assistant professor Luca Pezzarossa. “It is groundbreaking that we can use free tools to develop the chip “Because it’s usually so expensive to buy licenses for the various tools you need to make a microchip that only companies have had the opportunity to do so.”
“It’s impressive and inspiring to see how a relatively small group of undergraduate students can work together on the difficult challenges of the chip design process and achieve concrete results in such a short time,” adds Pezzerosa. In addition to the chip design process, students would also be taught the value of constructive teamwork – a basic skill for future engineers, according to the assistant professor.
Suggestions for Europe?
An intensified effort for more investment in chip design and production is currently noticeable throughout Europe. The EU Chips Act, worth € 43 billion, aims to make the EU more attractive as a location for chip production and to make the whole of Europe more independent in terms of semiconductor production and supply. But also at the local level, the individual EU member states are trying to bring more knowledge about semiconductor production into the country and to expand their own capacity: For example, the Spanish government has announced that 11 billion euros from corona pandemic aid will be spent. to strengthen the domestic chip industry to want to hold. Germany’s Economy Minister Habeck also recently pledged € 14 billion specifically to promote German semiconductor production – and this after Intel had already given its commitment to locate its new mega-factory in Magdeburg, which is estimated at € 17 billion.
The need for specialized personnel for the chip industry is great throughout Europe – and will continue to be so in the coming years. Also in Denmark, there is a great demand for engineers for chip design, but there is a lack of suitable specialists. The DTU special course arose from this special need following a proposal from Jørgen Kragh Jakobsen, analogue circuit designer and owner of the one-man company IC Works, which also supported teachers and students in the design and implementation of the course free of charge. .
“We need innovation in this area. And the special course here is the first generation of some chip designers working with open source tools. We have not seen that before. And it will explode in the next few years,” says Jørgen Kragh Jakobsen. “It is very important for the students to gain practical experience so that they can learn the process of designing a chip that must have different functions, and later get the manufactured chip to see if it works. This is how we do it in the industry. Therefore, it is nice to see that the bachelor students get practical experience with it ”.