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Beach-goers: You're standing in a key ingredient for semiconductors

Fri, 07/26/2013 - 12:37pm
George Karalias, Rochester Electronics

As temperatures in Newburyport, Mass., skyrocket to triple digits and the humidity has us gasping for air; it is hard not to find yourself adhering to the beach-seeker mentality. As members of the semiconductor industry, we look at the beach a little differently than most. Why? As we find ourselves dragging a beach chair, tote and umbrella to the ideal beach real estate, the thought pops up: you’re standing on a key ingredient in the recipe for semiconductors.

Yes, you are standing on hot, burn-your-feet sand.  Sand is step one in the semiconductor creation process as sand contains high levels of silicon (in the form of silicon dioxide), which is the base ingredient used in manufacturing semiconductors.

Yes, those cell phones that may be in your beach tote; the e-reader you brought loaded with your favorite book; and let’s not forget about the air-conditioned car that drove you there all contain semiconductors.  And the semiconductors were created from scratch with the sand that is now residing between your toes.

So how does the process work? In an effort to keep it simple, silicon, when extracted, can marry nicely with surrounding atoms and form a metallic-like substance, which is favorable for conducting electricity (thus the term semi-conductor.) Silicon can easily be manipulated by adding other elements; exposing it to light or heat, or magnetizing it. That’s why silicon is the base for most semiconductors. It can also be broken down into extremely thin layers (wafers) and designs (or patterns) can be etched on each layer.  Then you can add layer upon layer—each with a slightly different design—until you get a chip. The etchings basically tell the electricity where to go, which is why you can make so many different kinds of semiconductors from the same material. These thin layers also reduce the size of the semiconductor and allow it to be placed into products such as cell phones.

It’s no surprise that silicon has been and remains the primary choice for semiconductors. For one thing, it’s plentiful (just look around); cheap; and easy to use. Although the silicon itself it cheap, the technology on chips can be very expensive. That’s what creates opportunities for companies such as Rochester Electronics. The investment in electronics, for many companies, is for the long-term. If a single component fails, replacing the system is expensive. Replacing a semiconductor isn’t as costly. Because silicon has been around a long time, Rochester is able to get the “recipe” for a semiconductor directly from chip makers, and use their ingredients – tools, die and masks – to rebuild or recreate a chip. At the same time, suppliers’ “secret sauce” – the software and design of the chip – is unique; and suppliers only share that with trusted, or authorized, partners such as Rochester.

So next time you hit the beach, think about the basic element – sand — that when refined is a basic ingredient to a technology that enables everything from landing on the moon to programming your remote control. That’s pretty cool.

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