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Medical Electronics Helping to Resolve Global Problems ― Next-Gen Power Semiconductors Drive the Technology Revolution
General Electric Company(GE) of the US, the largest conglomerate in the world, has launched the "healthymagination" initiative, designed to provide "better health for more people" worldwide. Kazuya Hoshino, Chief Technology Officer, Science and Technology Organization Japan at GE Healthcare Japan, a GE group firm handling medical electronics, discussed the potential contribution of semiconductor devices in revolutionizing medical electronics with Kazuhide Ino, General Manager, SiC Power Device Production Division, Discrete Production Headquarters, Rohm Co., Ltd. of Japan, who works with new SiC (silicon carbide) materials.
Ino: A variety of social issues related to medicine are emerging of late, especially in the industrialized nations, and new firms are exploring new medical technologies in a number of fields as a result. GE has been involved in medicine for a long time, but has now launched this new initiative under the "healthymagination" name.
Hoshino: The healthymagination initiative was announced in May 2009 as part of the GE growth strategy, calling for an investment of six billion US dollars over a six-year period from 2009 through 2015 to resolve a number of existing medical problems through technological innovation. The objective is to promote growth for the entire GE group.
We have invested three billion US dollars into key R&D topics, with a goal of at least one hundred innovations. There are three main points to the project, the first of which is to eliminate the differences in the quality of medical care received in various nations and regions around the world. The second point is cost, specifically how to reduce the soaring medical cost, especially in the industrialized nations. We are pursuing this objective through the development of lower-cost medical electronics, rationalization of various medical processes, and other approaches. Third is raising the quality of medicine itself, such as improving the performance of medical electronics and developing technologies to minimize malpractice.
Ino: GE Healthcare works in the medical field, and I suppose plays a central role in the healthymagination initiative. "Medical electronics" covers an enormous range of fields and core technologies. Could you explain a bit about what sorts of equipment GE Healthcare handles?
Hoshino: We handle the whole range of diagnostic imaging systems, including X-ray, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computer tomography (CT), positron emission tomography (PET), and ultrasound, as well as medical equipment including anesthesia delivery and monitoring systems; information technology (IT) systems for medical facilities; nuclear imaging agents; and equipment for R&D in advanced life science and pharmacology (Fig. 1).
GE Healthcare Japan is involved in the development and manufacture of CT, MRI and probes for ultrasound diagnostic systems, shipping them worldwide. Most of them are for mid-range systems, which enjoy the strongest demand. High-end designs delivering superior performance even on a given system, and relatively inexpensive designs, are handled by different group subsidiaries outside Japan.
We are the only foreign-capital firm in Japan handling the entire process from medical imaging system development, manufacture through sales. The Japanese population is aging faster than any other nation in the world, and naturally GE Healthcare Japan is emphasizing the development of products and technologies addressing the various medical problems that have emerged as a result.
Development of Devices for Medical Electronics Accelerating
Ino: Rohm is also intensifying its efforts in the medical field. While Rohm began as a resistor manufacturer in 1958, today semiconductors account for eighty percent of total revenues. Other products include passive components such as resistors and tantalum capacitors, and modules. Until recently the company has targeted primarily the information and communications sector, but we are now pioneering new fields offering future growth. Part of the strategy guiding this process is to combine our established expertise in semiconductors with fields that are new to us, such as biotechnology, to create innovative devices and solutions. One of the key targets is medicine.
One of the first results is this program was the B-Analyst, a blood analyzer capable of working on a single drop of blood, commercialized in 2008. A single drop of blood can be drawn from a fingertip, and the test vial just loaded into the B-Analyst for a quick health check. The analysis takes only about seven minutes, and the equipment itself is a desktop design so it can be used even in small-scale facilities. We believe it will contribute to Point Of Care Testing (POCT) in bedside and local clinic use. The test chip is manufactured through an application of microfabrication technology developed by Rohm for semiconductors.
We have also developed a range of sensor device technologies covering the entire spectrum from infrared to ultraviolet, many of which have medical applications.
The SiC power devices that I work with also offer a variety of benefits for medicine, I believe (Fig. 2). These electronic devices are used in electrical circuits handling high power levels, such as power supplies, or the drive systems in electric vehicles. Compared to conventional Si (silicon) power devices, SiC devices offer lower loss and lower power consumption, which means that equipment requires fewer cooling components, such as fans and heat sinks. These advantages can be harnessed to downsize systems and help them operate on less power.
Low-Power Operation and Smaller Size: Key Development Themes in Medical Electronics
Hoshino: Smaller systems and lower power requirements are key issues in the development of medical electronics. In general, systems delivering higher performance or providing powerful functions tend to be larger and consume more power. Not all medical institutions have the space needed to install these huge machines, though, and existing power supplies may be insufficient. Designing systems that are smaller and need less power will help resolve these problems, and facilitate the use of high-performance medical electronics in more facilities.
Low-power operation is also important in improving disaster resilience, I think. A disaster can stop commercial power supplies, but most hospitals are equipped with internal emergency supplies. They only have limited capacity, though, so power-hungry medical electronics often cannot be used. If low-power medical systems can be developed, it would be possible to operate them even from emergency power supplies.
Expanding the Range of Power Devices
Ino: The SiC power devices we sell now include Schottky barrier diodes, MOSFETs, and power modules. We have models rated up through 1200 V and 180 A, and major applications include power generating facilities and power supplies. They made their first commercial appearance in vehicles in 2013. Powertrains are expected to become the most common basic system for automobiles from 2016, and we believe that the SiC power device market will expand significantly from about 2020, primarily in automotive applications.
We plan to develop new devices with higher voltage and current ratings, and develop new applications for diverse requirements. We are now developing full-SiC power modules with rated voltages of 1200 V and 1700 V, and rated current of 600 A, scheduled for shipment from volume production in 2014 (Fig. 3).
Hoshino: Cost reduction will be crucial in achieving widespread adoption of SiC power devices. Market competition is intense in the mid-range medical electronics we handle, and cost is always a concern. It is very difficult to justify the adoption of new components if they result in increased cost.
If adoption in the automotive industry proceeds, then it is likely that the cost of SiC power devices will drop sharply, and I think the rating parameters demanded by the automotive industry for SiC power devices are not that much different from what we'd need in medical electronics. If devices are developed for use in automobiles, where high reliability is essential, it is likely that the same devices could be used in medical electronics.
There are many instances where technology developed for one field contributes to equipment evolution in another. The Vscan pocket-sized, portable ultrasound we announced in 2010, for example, stirred up quite a storm in the industry because it combined simple operation with powerful functions in an extremely small package, only 135 mm x 73 mm x 28 mm (Fig. 4). This product utilized a low-power microprocessor originally developed for mobile equipment such as mobile phones. The Vscan was created through a union of our own core technology with technology from other fields.
Ino: Combining technologies from two entirely different fields has the potential to create completely new products and technologies. Many of the problems society faces today cannot be resolved through mere extensions of existing technologies, and I think they will require approaches going beyond traditional R&D frameworks.
Thank you for your time today.