The hands of the young innovator move with precision as he draws his bow across the strings and presses each note along the fingerboard of his violin.
The concert hall resonates with beautiful, moving passages from Niccolo Paganini’s Caprice No. 24, each note in lockstep with the melody in Ernest’s mind, the movement of his bow and the quickness of his fingers.
While he plays, he thinks of his left hand as the engineer, his right hand as the “soul of the music.”
To Ernest, the violin has been many things: A chore. An instrument to awaken his competitive spirit. A motivator for big goals. And finally, a resonator that would open his eyes to the underlying physics of a technology innovation he would someday develop.
Ernest’s fingers learned their quickness from playing the violin – and the restless movement of his fingers helped lead him to his day job – as a micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) technologist in Kilby Labs, our company’s applied research center.
Ernest has developed a new application for bulk-acoustic wave (BAW) resonators, devices much like his violin, only at 100 microns wide, our new TI BAW technology is smaller than the diameter of a human hair and oscillates at much higher, inaudible frequencies.
These tiny timekeepers have the potential to become the sturdy heartbeat of electronic systems that will accelerate next-generation connectivity, enabling big data and unlocking the potential for smart cities, smart factories, smart homes and a host of other applications.
Standing mid-stage in the Eugene McDermott Concert Hall at the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, Ernest remembers the last time he was here. At 13, he sat within 5 feet of where he is standing now, playing with the Taiwan youth orchestra. By that point, he had long since fallen in love with music.
Today, Ernest is a concert violinist by night, MEMS researcher by day. Recruited by our company from the doctoral program at the University of California, Berkeley, he is an expert on MEMS resonator technology. He has been working for six years with colleagues around the world to develop products in which these tiny bulk-acoustic wave resonators function like electronic heartbeats – or clock signals – that tell each electronic component when to perform its part in perfect harmony and synchronization.
It all began with the music
Rewind to the mid-1980s. Ernest is 5 years old, living with his family in the countryside in central Taiwan. His grandparents are farmers. Music education is a Taiwanese staple, and so at the urging of his parents, he began learning to play the violin, though most of his classmates played the piano.
Working each day on his fingering and bowing techniques felt like a chore. At the time, Ernest was more interested in science and sports.
“I played basketball until I knew I wasn’t tall enough,” he says.
Ernest and his younger brother also loved to use LEGO® kits to build robot arms and other contraptions.
“The toys were very expensive, so we would buy one kit, and we would start to follow the instructions. And then we would start to build other things,” he says.
While he was in elementary school, Ernest built tiny mechanized elevators for his bunk bed so he could send drinks and other items down to his brother.
Then, in fourth grade, Ernest performed in his first national violin competition. It changed everything.
Though he didn’t win, the competition introduced him to his critics, to his audience and to his competitors. After the event, Ernest told his teacher and his parents that he did not plan to take the high-school placement test for his region. Instead, he wanted to take the most difficult high-school entrance exam in Taiwan, which he hoped would allow him to go to a school in Taipei, where the musical education was more advanced.
When it came time to take the entrance exam, Ernest made the grade.
A defining moment
In his hometown, Ernest had been ranked first among thousands of students. But when he went to the most-sought-after all-boys high school in Taiwan, he realized he would have to redefine himself as something other than the first or the best.
“When I went to Taipei, I wasn’t the best anymore,” he says. “Everyone there was the best of the best. I realized that I would never be first all the time. So I had to find something, because winning was not the thing that could define me anymore.”
So he turned to the community of musicians.
“I found out that I like to work with people,” he says. “When you come together with friends to play chamber music, everyone contributes a little bit. Each person does well at one thing to make the larger thing great. And it’s really fun.”
After high school, Ernest attended a university in Taipei that’s known for its science and engineering programs. Although he was still passionate about playing the violin and had won two major music competitions during college, he decided to pursue a career in engineering.
One day, when Ernest was a freshman, he was sitting with several seniors, and his hands were fidgeting.
“One of them told me, ‘Hey, your hands cannot stop. Maybe you should try to do MEMS research.’’’
For 18 months between college and graduate school, Ernest performed his compulsory military service, during which time he cultivated his love of music and played for high-profile audiences that included leaders in Taiwan.
“Maker of resonators”
While studying to earn his doctorate in micro-electromechanical systems engineering at Berkeley, Ernest began focusing on radio frequency MEMS and became known on campus as a student who devoted long hours to his education.
He started his day at dawn in the MEMS lab and often stayed all through the day and night. He took weekly lessons from members of the San Francisco Symphony and practiced his violin from midnight to 2 a.m. every morning. He did not want to sacrifice his proficiency or lose touch with his music.
It was during this time that Ernest realized that the underlying physics of how his violin produces sound and how MEMS resonators create a precision beat are the same.
“Everything is physics,” Ernest says.
“His impact will be huge”
Today, Ernest works in research and development at Kilby Labs. He collaborates closely with other technologists to develop products such as our most recent TI BAW-based devices.
The technology can be used in any electronic system that requires a timing function, Ernest says.
“Almost any electronic system needs a clock,” he says. “For example, your smart phone, your projector – pretty much any electronic system, wired or wireless, depends on a precise clock in order to synchronize the transfer of signals or data. They all have to be synchronized so they know when and how to function.”
For decades, quartz crystals have been used for the timing function within electronic systems. But when these bulky components start to wear down, they jitter, or jump, which can impact their accuracy over time. One of the technologies Ernest helped develop can be used in concert with a quartz crystal to remove this jitter to create a more precise signal. The other technology integrates our TI BAW resonator into a microcontroller, eliminating the need for quartz crystals and creating more space on the circuit board for design engineers to innovate.
With the advent of more advanced communications networks and the age of big data, high-precision clocking is essential as increasingly massive amounts of data speed between systems around the world, connecting doctors to patients, farmers to livestock, and buildings to cars.
Our new TI BAW-based products promise to radically improve the performance of internal clocks and accelerate applications ranging from building automation to virtual health, personal electronics and more.
On the horizon
Ernest has found the same sense of community with his colleagues in the lab as he found through his music. The community of problem-solvers – each with unique skills – works together through daunting challenges toward common goals.
Ernest’s colleagues know him as a steady voice who never doubts the team’s ability to succeed.
“During the process of innovation, there are many ups and downs, and it can get emotional,” says Xiaolin Lu, a TI Fellow and a leader in the development of our BAW resonator technology. “When things don’t go as people think they should, people can get discouraged. Or when things go well, they may get too excited. Not Ernest. I’ve never seen a single time he hesitated. He never had a single minute he showed that he doesn’t believe in this.
“He believed even when many people didn’t. In the end he was proved right. That kind of character is unique. His impact will be huge.”
Ernest is already on to his next challenge. His vision for the future? To continue working on the heartbeat of electronics – and to always embrace the soul of the music.