Semiconductors – The Core of Modern Life?

Software, Media & Technology


Semiconductors are present in almost all of our technology as they are used in chips to drive power flow through the devices we use every day. The unprecedented growth growth in demand for tech solutions brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic and its associated lockdowns has led to a semiconductor shortage. This blip in a seemingly smooth production process has led tech giants and governments to work together to build a future rich with semiconductors. With the UK developing new post-Brexit trading partners, it is a crucial time to analyse where and how the development of semiconductors will impact our world.

I began reading this article about the semiconductor crisis which got me questioning how semiconductors fit into our society.


Let’s start at the beginning – what is a semiconductor?

If you know all about what semiconductors are skip to the next bit.

A semiconductor is a material that enables computers and devices to conduct electricity and perform tasks. It is the foundation upon which all everyday electrical appliances are built. Its efficiency lies in its ability to sit in the middle of the conductor and insulator scale. Semiconductors are used in the following circuits:

Diodes – flow in one direction.

Integrated Circuits – a set of circuits on one piece of semiconductor material, sometimes known as a microchip.

Transistor – amplifies, controls and generates electrical signals

Semiconductors can vary in conductance depending on the impurities added to it, these impurities are known as dopants. The majority of semiconductors are created by combining a mixture of materials to produce little crystals – these crystals have distinct electron patterns that layer into what are known as shells, these shells layer inside of the atom. The final layer of shell is called the valence shell. The electrons within this powerful shell form bonds with nearby atoms producing covalent bonds. Semiconductors differ to regular conductors by housing four electrons in their valence shell compared to the mere one electron in regular conductors. When the atoms nearby have the same four-electron shell, they combine and organise themselves into crystalline structures, which are then combined to create semiconductors. The most used form of conductor uses silicon crystals.

These complex crystal compounds are what’s powering the 21st century – so, what is the shortage crisis and how can we mitigate potential societal damage?


The demand for semiconductors

Semiconductor revenue has increased by 95% in the past decade, leading many government officials to comment on the growing need. Michelle Donelan, the UK’s Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, commented: “We rely on semiconductors – they are in everything from our smartphones, kitchen appliances, and cars all the way through to the supercomputers that support our weather reporting, energy sector and countless other areas of our economy.” Semiconductors look to reach a market volume of $818.6bn by 2027, due to an expected growth rate of 8.09% (CAGR 2023-2027).

However, supply has not been keeping up with demand, which has been impacting semiconductor-dependent sectors. This has led governments and tech companies to fund new development projects; a government study has been funded to consider semiconductor infrastructure improvement plans focusing on “industry coordination, silicon prototyping, open-access manufacturing, advanced packaging and intellectual property.” Donelan hails the study as way of producing a “new national institution and greater research facilities”.

Chip giant, Intel, has now announced it will invest £80bn over the next decade into every aspect of its semi-conductor supply chain. The company looks to develop manufacturing facilities, state-of-the-art packaging technologies, and build new research into its growth. It also plans to invest in European countries including France and Germany. This expansion of production will reduce export costs and reassure its customers that there will not be a chip shortage. Similarly, the EU and US are looking to localise chip production to reduce the threat of economic and national security risks to the supply chain.

Countries are particularly concerned about Chinese chip production. Supply chain disruptions were seen across many sectors during the pandemic, which has highlighted the importance of reliable and secure sources of critical components such as semiconductors. Intel’s decision to invest in Europe will bring jobs and economic growth and stability, ensuring technological regional independence throughout Europe. Intel’s leading investments are representative of a significant step within the secure and self-sufficient global semiconductor industry.


What is the UK doing to change the semiconductor industry?

The UK government published a semiconductor strategy in 2021: its goal was to expand the national semiconductor industry by boosting infrastructure projects, research and development. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is commissioning a research project to investigate new national initiatives that would bring together industry, academia and government within the UK to help businesses grow and tackle production development. This government backing will grow domestic companies with the goal of attracting foreign investment, as well as creating new opportunities for the UKs semiconductor industry and promoting research projects in AI, quantum computing and the internet of things (IoT). The UK is looking to focus on developing a reliable and resilient semiconductor industry to support and promote economic growth and national security whilst also developing homegrown innovation and collaboration.

The semiconductor industry is not only looking to bring new economic growth but also to promote a sustainable agenda. The development of semiconductors will increase energy efficiency through the development of energy-efficient chips that will reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions. This can be done through the development of efficient microprocessors or chip design optimisation. One example is Toyota’s new development in chip material replacing silicon with silicon carbide, this has improved fuel efficiency through the reduced loss of electrical power. This will also reduce waste and help to develop a more sustainable manufacturing processes. To increase sustainability, Toyota will begin to produce semiconductors that can be easily fixed, upgraded and are durable. This will reduce environmental waste and develop a new circular economy.

To increase sustainability, the waste generated during semiconductor manufacturing can also be recycled. Many of the materials used in semiconductor manufacturing are hazardous and toxic, and improper disposal can lead to environmental and health hazards. Recycling can help recover valuable materials and reduce waste. Several companies are now working towards developing sustainable and circular processes for semiconductor manufacturing.


Closing thoughts

Semiconductors are the backbone of modern technology, and the demand for them is only increasing. The semiconductor crisis has highlighted the importance of a secure and self-sufficient semiconductor industry. Governments and tech companies are now investing heavily in research and development to expand the semiconductor industry and promote economic growth, innovation, and sustainability. As the world becomes increasingly digital, the future of the semiconductor industry looks promising, and we can expect to see more exciting developments in this field in the years to come.

By Ella Bertrand on 23/03/2023