After Silicon, What Comes Next?

IQE

It has been foretold by many science fiction writers that mankind will evolve into beings able to access all the information in the cosmos with our minds. For the time being, however, we use smartphones. At the base of everything, even before the device becomes a smartphone, there are people who create a very important piece of the wireless puzzle: the semiconductor chip, etched with tiny pathways for electric signals to follow…

The problem with traditional silicon chips is that it isn’t well suited for use at the higher frequency bands that are used to send signals to and from our wireless devices. We need a semiconductor that is capable of handling this task without missing a beat and according to Gary Blackington, the Director of Sales and Applications at IQE, silicon is reaching some fundamental physical limits which affect its capability to achieve the performance required for today’s technologies.

Silicon chips have been around for many years, and have many applications. While silicon is the prevalent material used in the electronics industry, compound materials, such as gallium arsenide and gallium nitride, are being used to make advanced electronic components. Compound semiconductors are alloys sharing the same basic properties with silicon but with a host of additional features in terms of the speed at which they can operate, as well as other electronic and photonic properties (Photonics being the science of light from generation and transmission to modulation, amplification and detection).

IQE uses an advanced crystal growth technology called epitaxy to manufacture its semiconductor wafers which are then supplied to the world’s major chip manufacturing companies. Epitaxy is the deposition of an overlayer onto a crystalline substrate in such a way that the atoms are perfectly aligned in a crystal lattice. The chip manufacturing companies then use the wafers to make the chips which form the vital components of nearly every high tech system and device.

IQE is the largest independent company worldwide with this capability and can supply wafers using all of the leading crystal growth technology platforms. The company uses metalorganic vapour phase epitaxy, molecular beam epitaxy and chemical vapour deposition and is the largest independent outsource company with this capability, firmly establishing it as the world’s leading supplier of advanced semiconductor wafers.

With uses in fields from wireless and photonics to electronic and solar technology, the company’s wafers are used in an incredibly diverse range of applications: optical communications devices, optical storage (CD, DVD), mobile handsets and wireless infrastructure, Wi-Fi, WiMAX, base stations, GPS, medical equipment, barcode scanners, high efficiency LEDs, satellite communications, laser optical mice, laser printers, photocopiers, thermal imagers and more. The increasing growth in smartphone ownership has fuelled a large part of the demand for compound semiconductors

The company started providing epitaxial wafers upon its founding in 1988. The firm initially specialized in photonic devices such as semiconductor lasers, LEDs and very sensitive photodetectors used in fibre optic communications. The technology was just budding back then, so the company developed a strong foothold in the market without many competitors. As time passed, the company grew gradually and expanded into several different fields and, by 1999, had merged with another company in Pennsylvania.

“Since then we have grown, both organically and through acquisitions,” explains Chris Meadows, the Group Corporate Communications Manager at IQE, “We now have multiple manufacturing sites in the USA, Europe and Asia.”

Demand for compound semiconductors has grown substantially during the last decade to meet the higher performance requirements of evolving communications technologies. With IQE established and equipped to supply these products, it made sense for companies to outsource the complex epitaxy process to this experienced firm of professionals rather than for customers to develop their own processes in-house. This not only benefits IQE but also reduces overall wafer costs and accelerates time to market for its customers.

“Our growth has really been in developing this commercial global service to provide these specialist wafers to, firstly the wireless industry, but also other sectors that rely on the advanced properties of compound semiconductor materials,” says Chris. “The added performance has allowed semiconductors to switch very quickly at the frequencies that are used for communications.”

Just for the wireless industry, the amount of compound semiconductor wafer produced by IQE last year provided enough material for roughly two billion devices with one wafer being made into chips for between several hundred and several thousand devices. The company’s photonics division produced enough compound semiconductor material to make a billion devices. All this translated into 130 million dollars for the group, eighty-five percent of which from the wireless division.

IQE has won several awards, such as the Company of the Year from ESTNet for being a world leading supplier of semiconductor wafer products. The company has also won the Elektra 2011 Manufacturer Export Award, from the Elektra European Electronics Industry Awards. Supplier of the Year has awarded by its customers for such qualities as zero defects, excellence in customer service and swift response times. The company has also won several other awards including environmental awards, some for the entire group and some for individual divisions. All of the IQE sites are ISO certified and most of the sites have also achieved the ISO: 14000 standard for environmental management.

“We are getting to the performance limits of silicon. There is something called Moore’s Law which tells us that every eighteen months they are able to shrink the distance between the drain and the source of the transistor. As far as the technology used to do this, it’s all becoming highly complex and costly so there is a clear advantage in combining the power and efficiency of compound semiconductors with the well established manufacturability of silicon,” says Gary.

“Right now, silicon is cheap and, as a result, it is the prevalent technology,” explains Gary. Though its performance is limited, cost remains the determining factor though this could soon change. “You would likely never use a compound semiconductor for something that could be done by silicon, simply for cost reasons. Compound semiconductors are higher performing than silicon and because the technology is not as mature as silicon it’s a little more of a costly process.”

“Silicon is reaching some of its physical limits and, when it comes to how quickly it can switch for example, it has certain limitations that cause it to consume more power,” says Chris. “It becomes less efficient at higher operating frequencies, where compound semiconductors can be more efficient while switching several hundred times faster than silicon. Because of the cost, silicon will be used where it can, but the number of applications for compound semiconductors is increasing all of the time.”

September 23, 2017, 3:51 PM EDT

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