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By Tawanda W. Johnson
Semiconductors are ubiquitous—the brains of modern electronics, from computers to smartphones to cars—and play a crucial role in keeping the US as a global technology leader, boosting the economy, and strengthening national security.
But America’s leadership in the semiconductor field remains in a precarious position. According to the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA), “federal investments in chip research have held flat as a share of gross domestic product (GDP), while other countries have significantly ramped up research investments.”
There’s good reason to boost investments in semiconductor research: according to “Sparking Innovation,” a SIA report, “each additional dollar invested in federal semiconductor research increases US GDP by $16.50.”
For its part, APS, through its participation on the Task Force on American Innovation, supported the inclusion of semiconductor R&D provisions in the Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The Task Force is an alliance of the nation’s leading companies, research universities, and scientific societies that advocates for robust federally funded research. Following the urging of the Task Force letter, Congress included the Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors for America (CHIPS) Act in the NDAA authorization bill. The CHIPS Act authorizes the research and manufacturing provisions as well as tax incentives to strengthen the US semiconductor industry. Congress must now appropriate funding for those provisions in order for them to be implemented.
“We knew that many APS members, especially those who work in the semiconductor industry, would benefit from legislation that bolsters research and development in a field that’s central to so many technologies. It was great to see members of Congress recognize this critical industry as part of last year’s NDAA,” said Mark Elsesser, Director of Government Affairs at APS.
APS’s Physical Review journal played an important role in the publishing and dissemination of research regarding the invention of the semiconductor chip. In 1950, John Bardeen published his early work on the transistor in Physical Review (Volume 71; page 717). In his first article, he wrote that the transistor was the embodiment of a semiconductor chip. Bardeen followed that article with a second one, published in Physical Review (Volume 75; page 1208), where he explained the physical principles behind the transistor. In 1951, William Shockley, who also worked with Bardeen, published the physics behind a second semiconductor device called a junction transistor, which formed the basis of future semiconductors.
Several years later, Bell Laboratory scientists developed the processes necessary to manufacture the junction transistor. The key to that process: the ability to grow high purity, large single crystals of silicon and germanium. Gordon Teal and John Little reported this work in 1950 in Physical Review (Volume 78; page 647).
In 1951, Shockley, Morgan Sparks, and Teal published further work on the basics of the manufacturing processes in Physical Review (Volume 83; page 151). Similar articles were also published in the Physical Review journal from 1948-1952, covering the early work on the transistor.
“It is clear that APS was at the forefront in helping to disseminate such important science on the development of the semiconductor,” said Dan Pisano, Director of Industrial Engagement at APS.
Until 1952, Bell Telephone Labs was the only commercial manufacturer of the transistor. During that year, Bell Labs offered a license to 40 companies to the technology of the transistor. Later, companies such as General Electric, RCA, Fairchild Semiconductor, Texas Instruments, Mostek, Intel, and the Aerospace Corp. dominated the semiconductor industry. Sony was the only foreign licensee.
The shift to Asia-Pacific manufacturing began with designs in the US and fabrication in Asia. As demand and capability grew in Asia during the 1990s, it became the dominant source of semiconductor devices.
“The United States is now experiencing a shortage of semiconductor chips due to a high demand for the chips and relatively little supply available, especially in the car industry. It will take time and resources to restore manufacturing capacity in the US to get our nation back on track toward building the necessary facilities that will lead to a robust supply of semiconductors—the backbone of our modern society, national security, and economy,” said Pisano.
The author is Senior Press Secretary in the APS Office of External Affairs.
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Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondents: Sophia Chen, Alaina G. Levine