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Research for the "digital ear" of the future: EU project "Listen2Future" starts at Infineon

Led by Infineon Austria, the European research project "Listen2Future" started with 27 partners from 7 countries to develop new and smallest microphone and ultrasound sensors for examinations in industry and medicine. Precise mini hearing aids, fast infection controls for infants or wearable ultrasound patches become possible.

Medical care, healthy aging, energy security and product quality are fundamental issues for our society. As sensory organs of technology, tiny sensors such as microphones and ultrasonic sensors play an important role in this. As a "digital ear", they record acoustic signals and allow rapid investigations. The research of "Listen2Future" will significantly improve the performance of existing systems and also produce completely new solutions that benefit society, people and health.   

Digital innovations for industry and medicine

The aim is to bring the smallest micro-electro-mechanical sensors, or "MEMS sensors" for short, into high volume production at globally competitive costs and make them available for a wide range of applications for industry and medicine. The research will yield higher image resolutions in ultrasound probes, robust mini-hearing aids with first-class sound quality and low energy consumption. The focus will also be on wearable ultrasound patches for early detection of heart disease, for example, and ultrasound devices for rapid infection control in infants. In industry, continuous quality control of materials and intelligent monitoring of the energy infrastructure are to be implemented (see examples on page 3).

Sabine Herlitschka, CEO of Infineon Technologies Austria AG, says: "Major innovation steps often take place at the interfaces of disciplines. This is especially true where medicine meets microelectronics, because we can detect and measure body signals much more precisely. This creates significant potential for improving healthcare. With the European "Listen2Future" project, we are working with excellent partners from industry, medicine and science to show how this "digital ear" can be made effective, in healthcare and beyond. Together, we are making highly relevant contributions to this key application area of acoustics."

Europe already occupies a leading position in MEMS sensors, with a global market share of more than 40 percent. The results from this research project will further strengthen the market position of European companies.

"Demand for miniaturized, energy-efficient system solutions is growing worldwide," says Adam White, Head of the Power & Sensor Systems division at Infineon Technologies AG. "Semiconductors play a central role in this. Sensors capture data, microcontrollers process it and forward it. Infineon already supplies MEMS microcontrollers and solutions of the highest quality. With the research, we can now develop further first-class acoustic sensor systems and, in combination with highly efficient processors and artificial intelligence, raise the entire system to a new level together with our research partners thanks to our expertise in this area. The research work opens up enormous application potential and creates sustainable benefits." 

Precisely capture sound and make it visible

The smallest MEMS microphones ensure perfect sound quality with low energy consumption in hearing aids and hearing probes, in smartphones or hands-free devices. In medicine, ultrasound is one of the most common examinations and is used in pregnancy checks, the examination of the thyroid gland, liver or heart. Industry uses ultrasound to "hear" friction, vibrations and damaged areas. This makes it easier and faster to locate problems in maintenance and predictive maintenance. But the devices still have their limitations: they don't work equally well in every frequency range, provide only snapshots, and are often large and expensive. The "Listen2Future" research team is addressing these challenges.  

New generation of transducers

The team is working on small, piezoelectric ultrasonic sensors and microphones based on novel, flexible thin-film materials. Using new materials and sensor concepts, the electronics are expected to offer more precise signals and images, as well as provide a higher quality sound experience, and also be stretchable and flexibly adaptable while consuming little energy. Research is ongoing across the entire development chain - from materials, design, signal processing, assembly and packaging technologies, software developments and artificial intelligence algorithms to miniaturized system solutions that can be integrated. In the end, the entire system will be smarter, smaller, more robust, more power-efficient and more mobile.

Concrete areas of application

Mini hearing aids consume less power
Around 34 million people in Europe live with impaired hearing, but only about one in three of those affected receives professional support and uses hearing aids. Smaller and easy-to-use hearing aids would significantly increase acceptance and improve healthcare. Advancements in MEMS piezoelectric microphones are expected to enable the smallest, most robust, waterproof designs and reduce power consumption by more than 15 percent through efficient energy conversion. User comfort will be improved and hearing aid battery life extended.

Precise ultrasound for infants detects infections
Novel miniaturized ultrasound probes enable the diagnosis of infections and life-threatening diseases in infants, such as meningitis, quickly, easily, painlessly and non-invasively. Highly integrated and cost-effective MEMS technologies from the "Listen2 Future" project also make the devices affordable for widespread use, such as outside the hospital and in developing countries. The research results can help to further reduce neonatal mortality rates in developing countries.

Portable patch for heart control
The project is also expected to significantly advance the development of flexible ultrasound patches. Wearable ultrasound patches will enable permanent, continuous and non-invasive cardiac monitoring, for example to check cardiac output, insufficiencies and pump volume. In the future, patients would be able to continuously monitor their cardiac performance painlessly from home with the patch attached to their chest. Doctors will receive more information for better medical treatment and hospital stays will be reduced.

Monitoring of composite materials and power networks
Integrable systems for continuous material and quality control are getting a new boost from research. Aerospace components can be precisely screened to identify remaining useful life. Online condition monitoring of the power grid permanently checks critical components and prevents unexpected failures, optimizing predictive maintenance.   

Project launch with high-level participants
The "Listen2Future" project - Acoustic sensor solutions integrated with digital technologies as key enablers for emerging applications fostering Society 5.0 - runs for three years and has a project volume of around 30 million euros. It is financed by investments from industry, subsidies from the individual participating countries and the KDT-JU (Key Digital Technologies Joint Undertaking) program of the European Union.

The kick-off of the project at Infineon in Villach was attended by all high-level project partners. The funding environment was represented by Yves Gigase, Executive director ad interim Key Development Technologies Joint Undertaking (KDT JU).

For Peter Kaiser, Governor of Carinthia, the EU project "Listen 2Future" is a perfect fit for Carinthia in many respects. "We are a living, working, economic and future location that relies heavily on research and development, future technologies, education and international cooperation. With the research and development of the smallest and most precise sensors, which will revolutionize the field of industry as well as medicine and be of immense help to many people, Infineon and Carinthia are once again in the limelight of the world public in the context of 'Listen2Future'. The fact that partners from 7 countries are collaborating on the project is also of particular importance for our province as a location. My thanks go to all those involved, first and foremost Infineon, who are contributing to the realization of 'Listen2Future' in Villach."

Excellent research: 27 partners from seven countries

The participating companies reflect the interplay between science and industry, from materials, semiconductors, electronics and medical technology, research and software development from all over Europe:

Austria: Infineon Technologies Austria AG (project management), Silicon Austria Labs GmbH, GE Healthcare Austria GmbH & Co OG | Belgium: Pulsify Medical BV, IMEC Interuniversitair Micro-Electronica Centrum | Czech Republic: Vysoke Uceni Technicke v Brne, Ustav Teorie Informace a Automatizace av cr VVI, Institut Mikoelektronickych Aplikaci SRO | Germany: Hahn-Schickard-Gesellschaft für angewandte Forschung EV, Codasip GmbH, Infineon Technologies AG, Infineon Technologies Dresden GmbH & CO KG, Inoson GmbH, Path Medical GmbH, Technische Universität Darmstadt, Technische Universität München | Netherlands: Solmates BV, Sonion Nederland BV, Universiteit Twente | Norway: Elliptic Laboratories ASA, Sintef AS, Sonitor Technologies AS | Spain: Agencia Estatal Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas, Dasel SL, New Born Solutions, SMD Inductor de Analgesia SL, Universidad de Granada




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