Exploring Alternatives to Silicon, the Wonder Semiconductor
Published on : Friday 15-09-2023
Discover the future of semiconductors with promising alternative materials for the next generation of technology.
Is silicon reaching its usefulness? Is it the end of Moores Law? What will be the alternative semiconductors beyond silicon? If such a question is rising in your mind, you are at the right place. It is no surprise that every material or technology or component comes to an end. This is why researchers and business leaders are looking into alternative materials that might further the limits of semiconductors beyond silicon in order to drive technological innovation and meet the consumer demands of more effective and potent devices.
In this article, we will let you delve deeper into the exciting world of semiconductors beyond silicon. It will also let you explore alternative materials with higher performance capabilities that could shape the future of semiconductors.
Understanding semiconductors and market opportunities
A semiconductor is a material with an electrical conductivity intermediate between that of an insulator and a conductor. A semiconductors conductivity can be altered by applying an electric field, changing the temperature, or adding impurities through a process known as doping. Silicon is the most widely used semiconductor material owing to its availability, stability, and ease of processing.
When it comes to the growth of the semiconductor market, consumer demand and the surging 5G, IoT, and AI sectors provide a plethora of opportunities for growth. As per reports, it is estimated that more than 75 billion connected or IoT devices will be installed and active globally, which will require semiconductor devices.
According to a Pew Research survey, Artificial Intelligence is another growth area for the semiconductor industry and is forecast to be part of the common landscape of daily life by 2025. This, in turn, opens up a new business opportunity for semiconductor manufacturers around the world. The MarketsAndMarkets report suggests that the semiconductor manufacturing equipment market will reach USD 149.8 billion by 2028 from USD 91.2 billion in 2023, growing at a CAGR of 10.4 percent during the forecast period.
Following this market growth, the McKinsey report highlights that sales in semiconductor markets grew by 20 percent, reaching about USD 600 billion in 2021. It further suggests the industry’s aggregate annual growth could average from 6 to 8 percent a year up to 2030.
What are commonly used semiconductor materials?
Over the decades, germanium, silicon, and gallium arsenide have been the three most popular semiconductor materials used by manufacturers. Germanium was the original semiconductor, having been discovered in 1886. However, this material fell out of favour after manufacturers discovered that silicon was significantly less expensive. Silicon is the second-most common substance on Earth and has robust mechanical properties in its crystallised form, silicon dioxide. Gallium arsenide is used to amplify high-frequency signals. It is a strong semiconductor, but its production is much more expensive than its alternatives.
A glimpse at the performance of the semiconductor industry
With the increasing impact of digital on every walk of life and business, the semiconductor market has boomed significantly in the past few years. It is even poised to become a trillion-dollar industry by 2030, with the demand for chips set to rise over the coming decade. Considering a McKinsey report, about 70 percent of the semiconductor market growth is estimated to be driven by the automotive (especially electric vehicles), data storage, and wireless industries.
Since there is a wide range of products and components made with semiconductor materials, the demand for semiconductors and their alternatives will significantly surge. Some of the products and components that are built with semiconductor materials include diodes, integrated circuits (ICs), bipolar transistors, field-effect transistors, light-emitting diodes (LEDs), silicon-controlled rectifiers, junction field-effect transistors, and more.
Silicon – the rise and the boundaries
Discovered in the early 19th century, the full potential of silicon was still finding its significance in the world of electronics in the mid-20th century. The breakthrough moment for silicon came in the late 1940s, when researchers at Bell Labs invented the first silicon-based transistor in 1947. This invention laid the foundation of the digital revolution and marked the rise of this semiconductor material.
Today, silicon plays a pivotal role in modern technology and various industries. Thanks to its versatility and abundance, it has become a crucial material in semiconductor manufacturing, solar cells, glass production, and chemical compounds. Despite its use across various industries for diverse purposes, there are certain challenges in specific applications.
The key challenges with silicon include heat dissipation and quantum tunneling that leads to electron leakage and higher power consumption, manufacturing costs, physical restrictions in terms of miniaturisation, and energy efficiency. To overcome such challenges, researchers are now exploring alternative materials in a new era of technology.
The need for alternative materials beyond silicon
The semiconductor industry faces challenges in maintaining Moores Law and rising computing power through miniaturisation as silicon-enabled devices approach their physical limitations. Key reasons why manufacturers in the industry seek alternative materials to silicon include improved performance, energy efficiency, and miniaturisation.
i. Using alternate materials can help manufacturers lower power leakage and enhance energy efficiency. It significantly allows for longer battery life and greener devices.
ii. Alternative semiconductors can provide higher electron mobility, which leads to faster and more powerful processors.
iii. With new alternatives, businesses can have smaller and more compact devices, enabling new applications and form factors.
The promising semiconductors beyond silicon
There are several materials that have shown a promising future for semiconductors, paving a new era of innovation for the technology industry. Alternative materials like Gallium Nitride (GaN), Silicon Carbide (SiC), Gallium Oxide (Ga2O3), and Carbon Nanotubes (CNTs) are actively explored by researchers and industry professionals. These materials offer improved performance, increased efficiency, and new possibilities for various applications.
Gallium Nitride (GaN): It is a wide-band gap semiconductor, offering numerous advantages over silicon. It shows high electron mobility and excellent power-handling capabilities. It can be widely used in power electronics and radio frequency applications, such as 5G communications and radar systems. GaN-based devices are more power-efficient.
Gallium Arsenide (GaAs): It is a compound semiconductor and is composed of the elements gallium (Ga) and arsenic (As). It exhibits high electron mobility and faster switching speeds than silicon. Its applications are commonly found in satellite communications, microwave devices, optoelectronics, space technology, and military and defense.
Carbon Nanotubes (CNTs): CNTs are promising alternative semiconductor materials that have the potential to replace silicon in future nanoelectronics. It has exceptional electrical properties, making it a promising candidate for ultra-thin and ultra-efficient transistors.
Gallium Oxide (Ga2O3): It is an emerging material in the field of semiconductors. It has an exceptionally wide bandgap, which enables high breakdown voltages and low leakage currents. Ga2O3-based devices are suitable for power electronics and high-power applications.
Promising applications of semiconductors beyond silicon
As silicon reaches the limits of its usefulness, the demand for and adoption of alternative semiconductor materials are showing great potential for the future. These materials will unleash various exciting applications, some of which are discussed below:
Power Electronics: Semiconductors like GaN and SiC, which offer a wide-band gap, are apt for power electronics. This significantly leads to more efficient energy conversion in electric vehicles, power grids, and renewable energy systems.
5G Technology: Wide-bandgap semiconductors can provide significant benefits for the higher frequencies and power needs of 5G networks. GaN-based power amplifiers and radio frequency devices can drive the development of 5G networks.
Sensors and IoT: Low-power and high-performance semiconductors can enable more advanced and connected devices. The unique properties that alternative materials encompass can help improve the performance of sensors and IoT devices.
Quantum Computing: New semiconductor materials beyond silicon can be crucial in evading the challenges that quantum computing possesses. The unique properties of these alternative materials could advance quantum computing technologies.
Semiconductor industry in India
In one of its reports, Deloitte predicts that the semiconductor industry in India will reach USD 55 billion by 2026. Majorly, three industries – smartphones and wearables, automotive components, and computers and data storage – accounted for more than 60 percent of the market.
In recent times, the government has also emphasized strategies and investment plans to make the Indian semiconductor industry stand out globally. Considering reports published in recent times, semiconductor consumption in the country has witnessed unprecedented growth, boosting the countrys technology sector. According to the Invest India report, domestic semiconductor consumption is forecast to cross USD 80 billion by 2026.
In the words of the Chairperson of the India Electronics and Semiconductor Association (IESA), Sanjay Gupta, as a major player in the global electronics market, Indias semiconductor consumption is driven by the rapid expansion of the telecommunications, automotive, consumer electronics, and IT sectors. He believes that with supportive government policies like Make in India and the National Policy on Electronics, India will continue its journey towards becoming a global manufacturing hub, and the semiconductor industrys growth and consumption are set to scale new heights.
The data presented by Minister of State for Electronics and IT, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, highlights that the overall import of semiconductor chips rose from INR 67,497 crore in 2020-21 to INR 1,29,703 crore in 2022-23. Conversely, imports from China surged from INR 24,604 crore to INR 37,681 crore over the same period. However, the government is taking crucial steps towards boosting domestic manufacturing and minimising its dependency on other countries.
Leading semiconductor players in India and the World
There are a number of global juggernauts controlling the semiconductor market because of the enormous size, the expense of producing integrated circuits (ICs), and the high cost of developing new technology. In recent times, however, the global semiconductor industry has witnessed a surge in the number of startups alongside leading players in India and the world.
Let us walk through some of the leading players in the Indian semiconductor industry.
SPEL Semiconductor: SPEL is the only Semiconductor IC Assembly and Test facility company in India. The companys products are hard disk drive components, optoelectronics, flat panel displays, and custom ASICs.
Chipspirit: Based in Bengaluru, India, Chipspirit deals in semiconductors for the highest-grade security applications. The companys services include frontend design, frontend verification, and turnkey solutions.
SiSoC Semiconductors: Founded in 2016, SiSoC Semiconductors is a Bengaluru-based design services company. It provides high quality and dependable services in the embedded and semiconductor areas.
Apart from these, other leading players are GreenIPCore, MediaTek, Tessolve Semiconductor, Signalchip Innovations, InCore Semiconductors, BlueSemi R&D Pvt Ltd, Silizium Circuits, and MIC Electronics Ltd, among others.
When it comes to global semiconductor players, the United States and the Asia-Pacific region are home to the world's leading semiconductor manufacturers. Let us take a look at the top leading players in the global semiconductor markets.
Intel Corporation: Known for the x86 microprocessor, Intel is the leading global semiconductor manufacturer. The company manufactures motherboard chipsets, network interface controllers, and integrated circuits.
Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co: It is the world's largest semiconductor foundry. Several semiconductor companies outsource the manufacturing of their chips to Taiwan Semi.
Advantest: Based in San Jose, California, Advantest is a leading developer of automatic measuring equipment. The company also designs the test systems essential to manufacture advanced computer and telecom products.
Other global players in the semiconductor market are Micron Technology, Samsung Corp., NVIDIA, Texas Instruments Incorporated, Broadcom Inc, KLA, InnoPhase, HRL Laboratories, and Applied Materials, among others.
As the world races toward a more connected and technologically advanced future, the semiconductor industry must constantly push its boundaries to meet the ever-growing demand for higher performance and energy-efficient devices. Although experts disagree on whether Moore's Law will ever end, we at Industrial Automation believe the semiconductor industry still holds a promising future. Semiconductor leaders and entrepreneurs should position themselves to make the most out of emerging technologies such as AI, IoT, and 5G and constantly search for new ways to advance semiconductor technology inside and outside of Moores Law.