Updated: Aug 4, 2021
Author: Roy Xu
Editor: Jasleen Matharu and Kira Tian
Artist: Susan Wu
We employ semiconductors in essential items on a day-to-day basis. But they are facing a shortage. So how are they made, and what is causing the scarcity?
In the early 1950s, silicon became the leading material within the transistor industry. Scientists discovered that silicon was a more efficient semiconducting material than Germanium because it raises the power output while lowering the operating temperature. Then, in 1954, Texas Instruments produced the first commercial silicon transistor, enabling the future development of electronics. The production process begins with silica commercially processed alongside wood, charcoal, and coal in a heated arc at a temperature over 1900 °C. In the arc, carbon reduces the silica to silicon. The silicon is then heated above its melting point, and a seed is positioned on top of the molten where the crucible of molten silicon will rotate in opposite directions. After obtaining the desired diameter, growth conditions stabilize, and a fully grown ingot cools down for slicing. During the slicing process, a diamond edge saw carefully slices the silicon wafers such that they are slightly thicker than the target specification. Following the slicing process, the wafers go through a lapping process to remove saw marks and surface defects before they are cleaned, polished, and finalized into a product.
Once we have the product, a transistor, a thin-film layer of wiring, and other components will be deposited on top. The thin film will be coated with a photoresist, and the circuit pattern of the photomask will be projected onto it, completing the first layering. This process is repeated several times as other layers form on top of one another, creating an integrated circuit. Once the circuits are deployed within the wafers, they will be cut into the desired size and shipped off to clients for installment onto their products. Just like that, the semiconductors for phones, computers, and cars are manufactured.
Why are we in short of semiconductors? The market for semiconductors was already unstable before COVID-19 arrived. Under President Trump, the United States has levied sanctions against several big Chinese companies, including SMIC and Huawei. Amid national security concerns, the pandemic only fueled such issues. Despite the pandemic disrupting all semiconductor shipments, demand for new mobile devices, PCs, and data center upgrades surged due to remote work and learning, as well as other stay-at-home trends. With most chipmakers hardly recovering from their initial disruptions caused by the pandemic, the Taiwan Semiconductor manufacturing company was one of the few who stayed online because its most advanced plants in Taiwan were not affected. However, the current disruption within the market is likely to linger around. To resolve this shortage, the Taiwan semiconductor manufacturing company vowed to invest $100 billion to expand its operations in the upcoming years.
The Biden administration also announced $50 billion proposals to strengthen America's chipmaking sector. Unfortunately, throwing cash will not resolve anything considering most of the semiconductor market still relies on overseas companies.
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