Semiconductors can be considered as one of the most important inventions of all time. They are foundational to our ability to connect with each other; to collect, store and process information; and to implement intelligent automation. Also referred to as microchips (“chips” for short) or integrated circuits (ICs), semiconductors have transformed entire industries such as entertainment, retail, medicine, and agriculture.
Think of all the electronic devices you use every day: mobile phones and headphones, fitness wearables, home appliances, laptops, and even automobiles or mass transit – all built around tiny pieces of technology. And new applications are appearing everywhere. Want to learn a little more about these small but mighty pieces of technology? Below, we’ve collected some interesting facts about semiconductors.
1. Semiconductors are built on semiconducting material – that is, material with electrical conductivity between metals (good conductors) and insulators (poor conductors). Importantly, the conductivity can be controlled by adding small amounts of other elements.
2. Chips are complex structures made of millions or even billions of transistors and other components, as well as layers of circuitry connecting the components. By integrating more tiny components and packing them more closely together, chips have become increasingly more powerful.
3. Slices of highly purified silicon ingots serve as the starting substrate for nearly all chips. Called wafers, these slices are usually 300 mm in diameter, though other sizes (e.g., 200 mm and 150 mm) are also used.
4. Semiconductors are made in special manufacturing facilities called fabs. Within these fabs are cleanrooms, which are enclosed areas with strict controls for airborne contamination, humidity, and temperature.
5. It can take 500 steps to process a wafer, as layers of material are deposited and removed to create desired patterns.
6. In 2019, nearly 300 billion chips were sold. That’s about 40 chips for every person on the planet.
7. Two common classifications of chips are logic and memory. Logic chips perform operations; these include microprocessors – the brains your mobile phone, laptop, etc. Memory chips store data, either temporarily (such as in DRAM) or in longer term storage (such as solid state drives).
8. The number of elements used in semiconductor manufacturing has grown dramatically as the technology has evolved. The first semiconductor devices were made of germanium, which was quickly supplanted by silicon. Today, more elements continue to be under evaluation, as part of new compounds or for new applications
9. Features in today’s most advanced chips can be as small as 14 nm – that’s thousands of times smaller than a grain of sand.
10. Highly controllable processes such as atomic layer deposition (ALD) and atomic layer etch (ALE) are used in chipmaking. These processes add or remove just a few atomic layers at a time.
To learn about the world’s main chipmaking material, read our “Ten Fun Facts about Silicon” article.