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Wafers and microchips: The limit of feasibility

01/11/2018 Blog

Wafer electronics

Ever faster, ever smaller, ever more complex: microchips are perhaps the most complex piece of technology that humans have ever created. Semiconductor manufacturers have always been racing for speed and miniaturization. The Moore law sets the schedule for this. In 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore asserted that the complexity, i.e. the number of transistors in processors, would regularly double. Depending on the source, one or two years are mentioned.

The existance of microchips starts with heavy equipment, an excavator, because sand is the raw material from which silicon is extracted - the element from which wafers consist. Wafers are, simplified said, the base plate for different electronic assemblies, in particular for microchips. As a semiconductor, the frequently occurring element silicon combines metallic and non-metallic properties.

Using chemistry, energy and pure silicon

The path from raw material a finished wafer is a complex one. At temperatures around 2000 degrees Celsius, silicon dioxide and carbon convert to carbon monoxide and silicon. This raw silicon is now refined in a complex chemical process for wafer production. The aim is extremely high purity, with only one foreign atom mixing with one billion silicon atoms at the end of the process, as the trade journal c't already wrote in 2013 in its article "From sand to chip". To produce the wafers, a seed crystal is immersed in liquid silicon at a temperature of 1400 degrees Celsius. This creates the so-called ingot, a silicon block with a monocrystalline structure. The ingot is cut into slices less than a millimeter thick with a diameter up to 30 centimeters - whereupon the surface of each slice is perfectly smoothed by chemical and mechanical methods and prepared for further processing.

A World of Wonders in the Nanometer Range

The following would be worth a separate article: layer by layer, circuits and transistors are placed on the wafer. The use of optical and chemical processes enables the deposition and removal of the finest structures and conductor paths that cannot be seen by the human eye. Today, chip manufacturers no longer advertise with enormously high clock frequencies in gigahertz, but refer to ever smaller and thus energy-saving structures in the nanometer range. Miniaturization is enormous: Intel is just taking the plunge into 10 nanometer technology. To clarify, one nanometer is the millionth part of one millimeter. In the technology sector, every leap into the next smaller dimension is called a full node, intermediate steps are known as half nodes. According to Intel, the state of the art is an incredible 100 million transistors, i.e. the smallest switching units per square millimeter. At the end of the process, the initially round wafer is cut into individual chips, so-called "dice" or "dies" (singular: "die"). The industry's goal is to produce wafers with a diameter of 450 millimeters, which would further increase the manufacturing effort.

You may have noticed that: To describe this technology, grammatical passive constructions are often required. The manufacturing processes are too abstract, too intangible for outsiders. The whole process takes place in hermetically sealed chip factories, also known as semiconductor fabs. Only such facilities offer the technical conditions for the production of highly complex chips in the nanometer range. The following video by Globalfoundries provides an insight into the processes. The conditions in the production halls are many times more clean than in an operating theatre, because the smallest particles in the wrong place can destroy a microchip.

Silicon Saxony produces state-of-the-art electronics

Saxony has established itself as a leading technological center in Germany. Silicon Saxony is the name of the city triangle of Dresden, Leipzig and Chemnitz, based on the well-known Silicon Valley in California. There are about 2300 companies and 60,000 jobs in this cluster, whose focus is on Dresden: " Approximately 1,500 companies with 48,000 employees belong to the microelectronics network only in Dresden," said Rico Nonnewitz of the municipal business development department.

Bosch, the automotive supplier, is now planning to set up a semiconductor factory in the vicinity of well-known companies such as Infineon, Globalfoundries and X-Fab. The property near the airport measures around ten hectares and about 700 jobs will be created there. The cornerstone has been laid, and construction is to be completed by the end of 2019. Production of 300 mm wafers is to begin in 2021. With costs of one billion euros - the federal government is contributing 200 million euros - the new factory is the largest investment in the history of Bosch.

The consumer benefits from the manufacturers' race

Customers experience first of all the race of technologies in practice. Manufacturers are regularly launching new, ever faster computers, tablets and smartphones on the market. One of the most famous examples is Apple. In September, the Californian company introduced new iPhones with even faster processors. The integrated A12 chip with 7-nanometer technology is supposed to be clearly ahead of the competition. A few months ago, however, it became clear where the development of processors could lead. Intel and other producers had to admit that Meltdown and Spectre were serious security gaps at the hardware level that had to be quickly plugged with software updates.

Digitalisation of cars, aircrafts and industry

Microelectronics has also made its way into everyday life for a long time now. Cars and aircrafts have more and more electronics on board. In the case of cars, assistance systems are becoming increasingly powerful in order to relieve the driver. While the invention of ABS by Daimler in 1978 was a revolution on the road, today the company considers itself to be one of the pioneers in autonomous driving. Even in ordinary cars, there are countless sensors on board that monitor what is happening around the vehicle - an advance that would not be possible without embedded systems, meaning the use of microchips. The continuing trend toward the Internet of Things and the smart home is not stopping at the stove and fridge.

Digitalisation is also an issue in aviation, the cockpit as a workplace has changed in recent years. In general as well as in commercial aviation, pilots are increasingly becoming managers of modern systems. In many areas, iPads have replaced paper. Avionics from manufacturers such as Garmin or Dynon are mature computers with the highest demands on reliability and functionality - made possible by modern microelectronics. During his visit to the Airbus factory in Ottobrunn, photographer Wolfram Schroll was on the trail of wafer production for the ARTS calendar sheet.

At least we have a look into the industry, where of course nothing can be done without electronics. Robots have become a matter of course in many manufacturing processes. All systems and machines are controlled by computers. And corporate managers have been developing concepts for integrating the Internet of Things into everyday industrial life for a long time.

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