"We need to focus on energy-efficient technologies."

Interview with Prof. Martin Ziegler on biologically inspired electronics | February 2021

In the course of the energy transition, scientists worldwide are researching the development of energy-saving electronics. At TU Ilmenau, researchers led by Prof. Martin Ziegler, deputy spokesperson of the SFB Neuroelectronics and head of the Department of Micro- and Nanoelectronic Systems, want to transfer findings from information processing in biology to electronics. In an interview, he explains how simple creatures like freshwater jellyfish can contribute to the development of efficient hardware.

AnLi Fotografie
Prof. Martin Ziegler

Hello Prof. Ziegler, what exactly can be understood by the term biologically inspired electronics?

Ziegler: Information processing, as it is today, consumes an immense amount of energy. Especially for applications in modern electronics, such as machine learning as the basis of artificial intelligence, the energy requirements of today's computing architecture are enormous. In biologically inspired electronics, we therefore want to develop extremely energy-efficient hardware and, to this end, emulate information processing as it takes place in biology within technical systems.

How do you go about this and what challenges does research into biologically inspired electronics currently face?

Ziegler: A major sticking point is that the details of information processing as it occurs in biology are not yet understood. For example, we only have a rudimentary understanding of how our brain encodes information. This makes it difficult to reproduce. In recent years, however, great progress has been made in neurobiology, which helps us here. But the processes in biology are very complex and difficult to grasp systematically. Mathematical models can only describe them in rudimentary form. However, our technical approach can help us here by reproducing the processes that take place between nerve cells in so-called solid-state electronic systems and thus transferring complex effects into electronic systems.

There are currently several projects on this topic at the TU Ilmenau. Could you go into these in more detail?

Ziegler: We are working on three major projects. In the Research Laboratory Microelectronics Germany (ForLab), funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, a new laboratory for biologically inspired electronics is currently being built at the TU Ilmenau. This will expand our technological possibilities and create an infrastructure for our research that is unique in Germany.

In the research group "Memristive Materials for Neuromorphic Electronics" (MemWerk), funded by the Carl Zeiss Foundation, a total of seven groups at TU Ilmenau are working on the development of new materials for biologically inspired electronics.

The German Research Foundation's Collaborative Research Centre for Neuroelectronics, in which the TU Ilmenau is involved with three projects, builds on this work. Together with eight other scientific partner institutions, under the leadership of the Christian-Albrechts University of Kiel, we want to investigate biological ways of processing information in simple living organisms, such as the freshwater jellyfish, and transfer them to electronics.

How important is interdisciplinary cooperation between research partners here?

Ziegler: That is very important and the key to new insights in this field. For years I have been working on interdisciplinary research projects with colleagues from medicine, biology, psychology, physics, chemistry, materials science and computer science.

Is the concept of biologically inspired electronics new?

Ziegler: The idea is not new, but it has become very topical due to the fact that today's way of processing information is increasingly reaching its limits. The solutions associated with Industry 4.0 rely on new energy-efficient hardware.

How promising is this approach in the context of the energy transition?

Ziegler: There are various approaches in research to solving the energy problem. One of these is to reduce the energy consumption of electronics. Current projections show that in 10 to 15 years we will no longer be able to cover the energy consumption of our current IT with the energy currently produced. The keywords here are the digital revolution and artificial intelligence, which are increasing the energy demand so much. This requires more energy production if we stick to today's technologies. At the same time, we also have to consider environmental aspects such as carbon dioxide emissions. The best way to tackle this problem is therefore to use less energy and to rely on technologies that are more energy efficient. We therefore have no choice but to develop more energy-efficient hardware, which is why the approach of bio-inspired electronics is currently gaining tremendous momentum worldwide.

Are you under time pressure in your research?

Ziegler: We are all under time pressure, since we only have one earth and have to ask ourselves how much more we can and may expect of it. If we take the above-mentioned projections of the future energy consumption of our IT world seriously, we do not have much time left to develop new electronics that are ready for the market. 15 years from basic research to a marketable product is a very short time. In addition, climate models clearly show that we need a strong worldwide reduction of greenhouse gases to save our climate. This means we have to act immediately. On the other hand, digitalization, which is currently gaining momentum due to the Corona pandemic, is increasing energy consumption more and more. This puts us under massive time pressure.

Is research into biologically inspired electronics a unique selling point of the TU Ilmenau?

Ziegler: We are very well positioned at the TU Ilmenau. With the large-scale projects ForLab, MemWerk, the Collaborative Research Centre Neuroelectronics and several smaller projects, we have a critical mass of researchers at the TU Ilmenau and cooperations with national and international partner institutions to address the topic on a broad scale. In addition, with the Center for Micro- and Nanotechnologies, we have an excellent infrastructure of laboratories and technologies that make us internationally competitive. Not many universities in the world have comparable facilities, which makes me very optimistic. That is certainly a unique selling point for us in Ilmenau.

The interview was conducted by Eleonora Hamburg.