Prof Patrick McNally

Unlocking the Secrets of Computer Chips: Real-Time X-ray Imaging Reveals Inner Workings

As part of the celebrations the 75th anniversary of the founding of the International Union of Crystallography, the Editor-in Chief recently selected a number of papers highlighting their significance to the scientific community over the past 75 years. A DCU Research Paper, co-authored by Prof Patrick McNally has made this prestigious list.

Prof Patrick McNally (DCU), Prof Brian Tanner (Durham University), and Prof Andreas Danilewsky (Freiburg University) used very powerful X-rays at a facility in the UK (Diamond Light Source) to closely examine what happens when you turn on tiny switches (transistors) inside computer chips made of silicon. These computer chips are getting more and more complex, with many layers of very thin silicon. When these chips are working, they get hot and experience stress, like stretching or bending, inside their tiny packages.

The team took real-time X-ray pictures of what was happening inside one of these working computer chips. Specifically, they were interested in a phenomenon called "current crowding," which is when electrical current concentrates in certain areas of the chip. By doing this, they hoped to better understand how these computer chips behave when they're working, which is important for making them work more efficiently and last longer.

Read the full research paper here.


The research was supported by the EU Framework “CALIPSOplus” Programme for Research and Innovation and  Science Foundation Ireland’s (SFI) (grant No. 16/RC/3872) which is co-funded under the European Regional Development Fund.

[1]  - See Section 2.7

[2]  “X-ray diffraction imaging of fully packaged n–p–n transistors under accelerated ageing conditions”, B.K. Tanner, A.N Danilewsky & P.J. McNally,  J. Appl. Cryst. (2022) 55, 1139–1146.