Compound interest; Is the future of semiconductors in silicon?

By Jordan Lorence, Marketing Manager, MRL Consulting Group

The shortage of semiconductors has put chips on the front pages of every tech newspaper, blog and website, highlighting how important these tiny pieces of technology are to society. Most often made from a single compound called silicon, these chips have advanced at an exponential rate since they became commercially available in the mid-1950s. As researchers and developers refined semiconductors to make them smaller, faster and more powerful, a new breed was born; compound semiconductors, and we believe they are the future.

From transistors to semiconductors; where did it all start?

Before getting ahead of ourselves, it’s important to go back to where it all began. In 1874, Karl Braun discovered and documented the first semiconductor diode effect, leading to the first semiconductor device, “cat’s whiskers”, patented in 1901. Developments in quantum physics led to the invention of the transistor in 1947 by Bell Labs, and the integrated circuit in 1958 by Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments. During these years, geranium, the base compound of early semiconductors, was replaced by silicon due to its ability to withstand greater heat, making transistors and integrated circuits more commercially viable for multiple applications. Fast forward nearly 70 years and the semiconductor industry is now worth $49.0 billion, and it has helped revolutionize society as we know it.

80% of semiconductors designed, manufactured and sold today are still made from silicon, but it’s the remaining 20% ​​that makes the future of semiconductors so exciting. What silicon did for semiconductors was amazing, but the materials that were made next were revolutionary, and we’re just getting started.

The birth of the compound semiconductor

While America is credited with inventing the semiconductor, the compound semiconductor was invented in South Wales by a group of companies, sponsored by the Welsh government. SPTS Technologies alongside IQE, Newport Wafer Fab and Microchip invented this new generation of semiconductors; Want a smartphone that supports 5G, 6G and Starlink satellite compatibility? Then compound is what you need. These chips support much higher frequencies with much lower power consumption compared to their silicon counterparts, making everything possible from electric battery charging for automobiles, smart displays, recognition face in smartphones, large-scale direct-view screens, and even the metaverse.

It’s hard to put into perspective how incredible the invention of compound semiconductors is. The IQE team can be proud to be the only compound semiconductor manufacturer with a global presence creating the stacks of epi-layers on wafers to form epiwafers. To put it simply, where traditional semiconductors are built by adding and etching various layers of chemicals and materials, compound semiconductors are made by adding one layer of atoms at a time. Yes, atoms.

Although compound semiconductors will not entirely replace silicon, they will prevail in 4 main areas:

Connectivity: Everything from support for 5G and 6G to linking satellites.

Power: GaN compound semiconductors underpin highly efficient power electronics, supporting the global push towards NetZero due to their efficiency.

Sense: Facial recognition (and all other 3D sensing tasks) Eye-safe LiDAR for autonomous vehicles and infrared sensing for defense and industrial applications.

Display: Compound semiconductor-based microLEDs can achieve ultra-high density and efficiency, making them ideal for metaverse, wearable devices, and smart displays.

The future of compound semiconductors

The future of these next-gen chips will be nothing short of revolutionary. The metaverse is just the first step towards unifying the real world and the digital world, and compound semiconductors will be at the forefront of making this a real, seamless possibility. They will help shape the next generation of smartphones, expanding their already huge array of features and possibilities, they will enable electric vehicles to go further, charge faster and, with the help of AI and software , to become truly independent. Advances in biomedical devices, green energy, industrial and consumer IoT applications will all advance as compound semiconductors are refined, leading humanity towards a safer and greener future.

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