Powering Everyday Life: The significance and impacts of the semiconductor industry

Podcast: Science With a Twist

Episode Summary

Semiconductors are silicon chips that conduct electricity in concrete and sophisticated ways, allowing them to be the brains of most devices that drive our modern lives. But despite the projections saying the semiconductor industry will hit the trillion-dollar mark by 2030, it's still facing many challenges.

For instance, supply shortages have led to bottlenecks in the production of everything from cars to home appliances. The deficit shows how critical these tiny silicon chips are to the smooth functioning of the global economy.

In this episode of Science with a Twist, our host Keith Cornell is joined by two subject matter experts from the semiconductor industry, Geoff Downing and Mark Mattison, to discuss the importance of semiconductors, the challenges the industry has been facing, and what the future holds for this technology.

Video Highlight

Listen Now

Guest Profiles

Geoff Downing

Business development manager at Thermo Fisher Scientific


Noteworthy: Geoff is active in key semiconductor advocacy groups and organizations, influencing the semiconductor industry value chain and advocating for government support. He's part of the Global Automotive Advisory Council (GAAC), Smart Manufacturing Global Executive Committee (GEC), and steering committee.


Where to find him: LinkedIn

Mark Mattison

Quality assurance lab supervisor at Entegris


Noteworthy: Mark is an analytical chemist by trade and has worked as a Lab Supervisor over the past few years.


Where to find him: LinkedIn

Key Insights

Semiconductor chips go through a long manufacturing process.


It all depends on the type of chip, but the standard timeframe is between 120 days and nine months. It is a three-phase process that includes design and frontend and backend manufacturing, all dependent on various factors. ''These are global supply chains supporting the completed product. Semiconductor chips could be manufactured by a large fab, maybe most of it within the house, but there are diversified approaches too, where the chip is moving across the country to complete certain stages of manufacturing.''


Some companies don't produce semiconductors in-house.


The rationale behind such a decision lies in the need for a specific environment and certain conditions for making these chips. ''The fabs themselves are like huge low cities. All of this has to be clean room work. It needs to be done within one location generally. So because it's clean room work, you can't send that across until a critical step is completed in the manufacturing process. [...] If even a dust molecule were to land on any of these chips, the dust molecule's width is wide enough to block the passes of electrical current on the chip, thus making the chip ineffective," explains Geoff. 


We use a wide range of gases to prevent impurities from harming the chips.


The most commonly used are helium, nitrogen, argon, and hydrogen. However, the gases used must be in perfect condition. And that's Mark's job. ''My experience is mostly with mass spectrometry, which is one of the best ways to analyze compounds like this. Specifically, an API-MS — an atmospheric pressure ionization mass spectrometer — has a simplified analysis of big bulk gases. For example, in the past 20 or 30 years, you could not analyze oxygen, if you could not get down low detection limits, analyze oxygen in bulk nitrogen. That used to be a lot more difficult with traditional techniques. But Thermo Fisher Scientific has put out some new analyzers with such a low detection limit there that we can accurately say we will get 10 to 15 parts per trillion in our gases that are being put through all these processes.'' 

Quotation marks
"Industry's progressively getting more and more sophisticated because it has to. It's being driven that way through capabilities, and they always have to be expanding these capabilities. The thing is that as those capabilities expand, the manufacturing demands also continually get narrower on their process windows."

Geoff Downing
Business Development Manager
Thermo Fisher Scientific

Episode Highlights

How Important Are Semiconductors to Everyday Life, and How They Have Evolved Over Time

''A lot of people don't realize how integrated we are with these latest chips. For example, an Internet of Things movement has been going on. So while maybe you don't care too much about your smart spatula being able to have the latest and greatest chip, you care if your pacemaker or car with early collision technology has the latest and greatest chip in it.


And that's been the progress of Moore's Law in the semiconductor industry. So while we've moved beyond ‘more is more,’ we're still moving into other areas and getting down to the smallest technological nodes and pushing the limits of current manufacturing capabilities — [this] is where the industry is right now,'' explains Geoff.

The Semiconductor Industry’s Growth Drivers

''There are several big drivers within the industry. Automotive is a huge one. Over 50% of the total cost of automotive is due to the semiconductor chips technology within it. Teslas are practically completely driven by semiconductor chips.


As we move from combustion engines to battery-powered, it's going to be completely controlled by semiconductor chips. The onboard systems on these cars have to be on the cutting edge, especially with the imagery detection technology, the battery management systems, and all the applications. It's only going to improve and grow.


Another big driver of the industry is AI and cutting-edge computers. So, supercomputers, things are going to be tackling some of the biggest issues facing humanity right now that are going to be powered by the latest semiconductor technology,'' says Geoff.

The Use of Gases in the Semiconductor Industry 

''The semiconductor uses a wide range of gases, but the most commonly used within semiconductors are helium, nitrogen, argon, and hydrogen,'' explains Geoff.


''My job is to monitor the purity of the gases that we use at our factory here. And the gases used in the industry are used to either create or promote the chemical reactions needed to shape the electrical properties of the semiconductor chip.


Nitrogen is a common gas used in the semiconductor industry. It is used to purge and clean stuff off the chip surface. And like Geoff was saying, if there's a single speck of dust in there, that can completely obliterate the entire chip, which costs millions of dollars and lots of resources; it's not a good situation.


So if you're purging your semiconductor chip with nitrogen, you want to make sure that that is clean because you're using the nitrogen to remove all the contaminants. So if your nitrogen has some oxygen in it, some carbon monoxide, these are reactive molecules that are going to cause problems; it's a good way to have impure gases running through your systems, and using them is a good way to set yourself up for a high-value failure,'' adds Mark.