Compound semiconductors are driving the evolution of gadgets, electric vehicles and quantum computing

Cardiff, Wales: All modern technology has the same beating heart. Smartphones, tablets, smart home devices, in-car entertainment systems, and even the complexity of electric vehicles (EVs) all require a silicon chip during the manufacturing process to operate them. Until the 2020 global pandemic and subsequent lockdowns brought supply chains to an abrupt halt, no one realized the importance of these silicon chips. We are now embarking on the next evolution of what is already a very complex and costly process.

CSA catapult (press image)

Compound semiconductors, as they are called, are increasingly finding their place alongside conventional silicon. The use cases, for now, revolve around its core strengths. Power, which can power electric vehicle electronics with a focus on extending battery life without compromising battery performance. Speed, which is radio frequency relevant for 5G networks, and indeed upcoming 6G services, as well as the use of RADAR. Finally, light, which concerns photonics for optical fiber communications.

Andy G Sellars FIET, director of strategic development at CSA Catapult, an innovation hub in Wales, knows the road is long and winding. This proportion is very small at the moment and growing very rapidly, he says, referring to the use of these silicon chips in smartphones and electric vehicles, but only for specific applications. In smartphones, for example, these faster chips drive facial recognition technology.

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It was in the summer of last year when India made the first move by announcing the Semicon India programme, with an outlay of 76,000 crore, to promote semiconductor development and display manufacturing in the country.

The tax support is divided into several tiers, according to the specifications of manufacturing production of 28nm or below will be eligible up to 50% of the project cost, while above 28nm and up to 45nm (up to 40% of the project cost) while above 45 nm and up to 65 nm (up to 30% of the project cost).

It’s a reasonable policy. It has a certain grade intended for mid-range silicon fabrication, Sellars says. The policy has global relevance, but the reach is broader India has a large domestic market. Semiconductors are a volume industry. The higher the volume, the more robust your business offering, he adds.

Sellars says CSA Catapult is making efforts to get UK companies to partner with companies in India, including in the EV space. The next goal would be closer collaborations on future telecommunications, she says.

The question is, how do compound semiconductors benefit communication and data networks? If we look at the 5G network and potential future 6G networks, most of the advances are happening in radio communications, so that’s the edge of the network, Sellars says.

Composite semiconductors are needed, first, to increase data rates, and second, to make that part of the network much more energy efficient, he adds. Data networks can consume a lot of energy.

Also, as data rates increase at the front end of the network, composite semiconductors need to do the same, he adds.

In India, 5G networks are a mix of autonomous (SA) and non-autonomous (NSA) networks. While the former is a type of network built completely from scratch, the latter, which is what Airtel has implemented, is based on a 4G network. Do 4G networks also use compound semiconductors?

Some of them used compound semiconductors. When you look at 3G, 4G and 5G, it’s a blend of capabilities. When 4G networks were first introduced, it may not use compound semiconductors, but eventually it is updated with semiconductors from compound companies. This will give them that ability, Sellars explains.

Last month, the UK also announced its semiconductor policy. Focus areas are compound semiconductors, R&D, intellectual property and design, investing up to 1 billion over the next decade.

The simple rule with semiconductor manufacturing is that as volumes increase, the cost per unit decreases quite significantly. The discussion has moved towards the need to keep costs down as it will directly impact the sticker price of consumer technology, from GaN (gallium nitride) chargers to electric vehicles.

It’s important to establish partnerships with like-minded countries, and this is where I see India as a great partner, says Sellers.

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This is why, while it is still early days for UK semiconductor policy, there is a greater understanding of the contours of Indian politics. It seems to focus on areas that have large growth markets. And because of the large domestic market, this will certainly help make the most of it, Sellers says.

Critically, Sellars points out one important example, is trying to couple semiconductor manufacturing with end markets. Some EV manufacturing in India is potentially one of the end markets, which could be used as an example, she says.

Developments with compound semiconductors will have a greater impact beyond mobility and personal technology. High-speed data networks, encryption, computing performance and quantum technologies will reap the speed and power benefits of the next generation of silicon chips. Sellers also believes that artificial intelligence, machine learning, and ever-evolving software will provide another layer for this evolution. One that interfaces with the user.

Quantum computing is experiencing significant movement. Intel joined the race this week with a new 12 Qubit chip. IBM’s quantum computer has also completed a benchmark experiment.

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