Joined up thinking: Europe to oversee trio of projects for homegrown chips, HPC gear

Move comes ahead of draft law to turn continent into a center of semiconductor expertise

Efforts in Europe to devise sovereign chips has picked up the past two months, with the European Union now coordinating three separate campaigns to make homegrown processors and supercomputer-grade systems.

An EU initiative called the European High Performance Computing Joint Undertaking this month said it has selected three projects to further boost the continent's high-performance computing ecosystem and design of microprocessors.

This comes ahead of the European Commission's plan this week to share details of legislation called the European Chips Act, which is designed to turn the continent into a center of chip expertise and manufacturing.

The three research projects that will receive €140 million in funding and be closely coordinated are: the European Processor Initiative, now in its second phase; the European Pilot for Exascale; and the European PILOT.

Late last year, the EPI completed phase one of its dream of designed-in-Europe microprocessors. This phase resulted in a general-purpose SiPearl-devised processor called Rhea, which uses a mix of Arm and RISC-V CPU cores, is to be fabbed by TSMC on its 6nm node, and will power Europe's first exascale supercomputer scheduled to go live next year.

The EPI two weeks ago started phase two of its project, which includes designing accelerators as well as features for Internet-of-Things system-on-chips.

The continent's EPI scheme was formed in 2018, and last year also delivered a sample set of RISC-V accelerators. Activity has continued, with partners collaborating through the pandemic to develop chip building blocks for automotive, security, and other applications.

"The recent success of EPI shows that concerted efforts can work in the semiconductor industry," Roger Espasa, CEO of Spain-based Semidynamics, told The Register. "Supporting ambitious projects with a small number of partners can help overcome challenges and allow a faster go-to-market strategy."

The EPI's second phase will be overseen alongside a second project called European Pilot for Exascale (EUPEX), which launched this year seeking to integrate a "full breadth of European technologies, from system architecture, processor, system software and development tools, all the way to applications."

Also part of the coordinated effort will be a research initiative called European PILOT (Pilot using Independent, Local and Open Technologies), which launched in December, and is focused on creating low-power, high-performance accelerators compatible with the open-source RISC-V instruction set architecture.

"The three projects, EPI 2, EUPEX and The European PILOT are critical to make successful our transition towards exascale while developing a world-class, competitive and innovative supercomputing ecosystem across Europe,” said Anders Dam Jensen, executive director at the European High Performance Computing Joint Undertaking.

Europe, like the US and China, is trying to boost its own home-turf semiconductor ecosystem. The larger goal is to design chips without relying on technology and intellectual property from multinationals like Intel and Arm, and to attract companies to open chip factories within the continent.

But Europe has lost its manufacturing edge. It had almost 25 per cent of the world’s chip manufacturing capacity in 2000, which is now down to eight per cent, according to consulting firm Kearney. ®

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