Until now silicon has reigned supreme in the semiconductor manufacturing business because of its widespread availability and low cost. But new materials are beginning to reinvent power and efficiency in cars, computers and consumer electronics. That evolution could save the U.S. government billions of dollars and create thousands of domestic manufacturing jobs.
On Jan. 15, President Barack Obama granted $70 million to a new manufacturing hub in North Carolina that will bring together applied research and product development for one purpose: to make better semiconductors.
Semiconductors are materials that conduct electricity better than insulators like glass, but worse than conductors like copper. While there are materials that exist with a higher “bandgap” than silicon– meaning they can operate more efficiently at higher voltages, frequencies and heats– they carry a hefty price tag.
“Currently they are expensive, ” said Lucy Shi, a Ph.D. and assistant professor of engineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “They have a very bright future, but because silicon’s cost is so low it’s not going to be a one-day thing. There has to be major breakthroughs.”
Obama’s $70-million grant utilizes the knowledge gathered by researchers like Shi, who have spent years studying compounds like gallium nitride that may possibly replace silicon as the base for semiconductors. According to Shi, gallium nitride has unique chemical properties including low electrical resistance that causes less power loss than silicon. The result: higher power and lighter-weight circuitry for power electronic devices such as planes and electric hybrid cars.
The semiconductor industry relies on such innovations to grow. Improvements to semiconductor technology created $128 billion in savings for the government from 1998 to 2007, according to the Bureau of Economic Affairs. The importance of research and development in such a vital industry makes projects like the one launched in North Carolina important, industry experts say.
The institute, led by research universities including North Carolina State and businesses such as Durham-based semiconductor manufacturer Cree Inc., represent a growing global trend of synergy between producers and educators to push forward new technological innovations.
The potential of wide-band gap semiconductors are attracting attention around the world. Anvil Semiconductors Ltd., a company spun off by Warwick University in the United Kingdom, has received private funding for development and commercialization of silicon carbide semiconductor-driven power devices late last year.
In China, Tianyu Semiconductor Technology Co. has expanded its silicon carbide wafer business globally through its research partnership with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the top think-tank of the Chinese government.