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The Gypsy Chip: How a Tiny Semiconductor Travels the World

It is estimated that a single chip can travel over 10,000 miles before it reaches its final destination. The next time you use a device that contains a semiconductor chip, take a moment to think about its journey. The chip may be tiny, but it has seen the world.
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Journey of a Chip

Welcome, intrepid readers, to a captivating journey into the heart of modern technology! In this travelogue, we’ll embark on an incredible adventure through the fascinating process of transforming simple sand into the intricate wonders we know as semiconductor chip.

Join us as we traverse the globe, exploring the intricate steps, major players, and intriguing trivias that make up the remarkable voyage of a semiconductor’s creation.

Step 1: Extraction of Raw Materials


Our Chip journey commences in the vast deserts of countries like the United States, China, and Russia.

Here, the abundant sand conceals a treasure—silicon, the building block of semiconductors.

The primary raw material used in semiconductor manufacturing is silicon, which is derived from sand (silica).

Sand is refined to obtain highly pure silicon, typically in the form of cylindrical ingots or wafers.

  • Trivia: Silicon is the second most abundant element in the Earth’s crust.

Step 2: Ingot Formation


As we venture into the manufacturing facilities of the United States, Japan, and Germany, we witness the birth of silicon ingots.

These ingots grow from molten silicon, crystallizing into towering structures that will become the foundation of our silicon marvels.

These methods involve melting the high-purity silicon and then slowly pulling a single crystal ingot or cylinder from the molten material.

  • Major Companies: Shin-Etsu, MEMC (SunEdison), Siltronic.
  • Trivia: Silicon ingots can weigh several hundred kilograms and be several feet tall.

Step 3: Wafer Creation


Our Chip travels bring us to countries such as the United States, Japan, and Taiwan, where ingots transform into perfectly cut wafers.

The ingots are sliced into thin circular wafers using precision cutting techniques.

These thin, circular platforms are the canvas upon which the intricate patterns of semiconductors will be painted.

  • Major Companies: Shin-Etsu, SUMCO, GlobalWafers.
  • Trivia: The diameter of wafers has increased over the years; 300mm (12 inches) wafers are common in modern semiconductor manufacturing.

Step 4: Wafer Polishing


Next, we enter the bustling facilities of the United States, Japan, and South Korea, where wafers undergo meticulous polishing.

The wafers are polished to achieve a smooth, flat surface that will serve as the foundation for building semiconductor components.

  • Major Companies: Applied Materials, Lam Research.
  • Trivia: Polishing removes nanometer-scale irregularities to ensure uniform thickness.

Step 5: Doping


With anticipation, we observe the process of doping, occurring across various semiconductor manufacturing nations.

Doping is the process of intentionally introducing impurities into the silicon crystal lattice to alter its electrical properties.

Different types of doping create either n-type (extra electrons) or p-type (extra “holes” for electrons) semiconductor material.

  • Major Companies: No specific major companies dominate this step, as it’s often integrated within semiconductor fabrication facilities.
  • Trivia: Doping introduces controlled impurities to alter the conductivity of silicon.

Step 6: Photolithography


In the Netherlands, Japan, and the United States, we marvel at the magic of photolithography.

This step involves using photomasks, which are like stencils, to define patterns on the wafer’s surface.

Ultraviolet light is used to expose a photoresist material on the wafer, creating a pattern that will guide subsequent etching and doping steps.

  • Major Companies: ASML, Nikon, Canon.
  • Trivia: Extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography is a cutting-edge technology for creating smaller and more advanced features on chips.

Read more: How ASML’s EUV Lithography Technology Made It Europe’s Most Valuable Company

Step 7: Etching


Countries across the globe house etching equipment, where material is selectively removed according to the patterns created in the previous step.

Chemical or plasma etching is used to selectively remove parts of the silicon material according to the pattern defined by photolithography.

This creates the various structures and features necessary for the semiconductor device.

  • Major Companies: Applied Materials, Lam Research.
  • Trivia: Etching removes unwanted material to form intricate patterns.

Step 8: Ion Implantation


Our journey takes us to regions with strong semiconductor industries, where ion implantation occurs.

This process involves shooting high-energy ions into specific areas of the silicon wafer to further modify its electrical properties.

  • Major Companies: Varian (Applied Materials), Axcelis.
  • Trivia: Ion implantation allows precise control over dopant placement.

Step 9: Deposition


In the United States, Japan, and South Korea, we bear witness to the deposition process.

Different layers of materials, such as insulators and conductors, are deposited onto the wafer’s surface using methods like chemical vapor deposition (CVD) or physical vapor deposition (PVD).

  • Major Companies: Applied Materials, Tokyo Electron Limited (TEL).
  • Trivia: Chemical vapor deposition (CVD) and physical vapor deposition (PVD) are common deposition techniques.

Step 10: Annealing


At this juncture, we journey to places housing annealing equipment.

The wafer is heated to high temperatures in a controlled environment to help the deposited materials bond properly and to repair any damage caused by previous processes.

  • Major Companies: Applied Materials, ASM International.
  • Trivia: Annealing repairs damage caused by previous processes and activates dopants.

Step 11: Chemical Mechanical Polishing (CMP)


We marvel at the finesse of CMP in facilities scattered across the globe. A dance of precision, this step ensures the wafer’s surface is flawlessly smooth and flat.

This process smooths the surface of the wafer again after additional layers have been added, ensuring uniformity and precision.

  • Major Companies: Applied Materials, Ebara.
  • Trivia: CMP creates a smooth and flat surface on the wafer.

Step 12: Packaging and Testing


Our journey brings us to the crucial phase of packaging and testing.

In the facilities of ASE Group, Amkor Technology, and Siliconware Precision Industries, semiconductor devices find protection and connectivity, while rigorous testing assures their mettle.

The individual semiconductor devices are separated from the wafer and placed into packages.

These packages protect the devices and provide electrical connections. The packaged devices are then rigorously tested to ensure they meet the required specifications.

  • Major Companies: ASE Group, Amkor Technology, Siliconware Precision Industries (SPIL).
  • Trivia: Packaging protects the delicate semiconductor device and provides electrical connections.

Step 13: Quality Control


In every corner of the semiconductor manufacturing world, quality control is a constant companion.

It ensures perfection, identifies deviations, and guarantees that each chip is a masterpiece.

  • Major Companies: Quality control is typically integrated within semiconductor fabrication facilities.
  • Trivia: Quality control ensures that chips meet strict performance and reliability standards.

Step 14: Distribution and Integration


As we reach this point, our semiconductors are ready to traverse the globe once more. Distributed to various electronics manufacturers, they find homes in devices that shape our world.

Once the devices pass quality control, they are distributed to various manufacturers that integrate them into electronic products such as microprocessors, memory chips, sensors, and more.

  • Major Companies: Chip distribution involves a network of suppliers and manufacturers.
  • Trivia: Semiconductors are fundamental to virtually all modern electronic devices.

Step 15: End Products


Our journey culminates with a realization: semiconductors power our lives. From consumer electronics to healthcare, aerospace to industry, these marvels drive innovation, transforming our aspirations into reality.

  • Country: End products are manufactured and used all around the world.
  • Trivia: Semiconductors power industries ranging from consumer electronics to aerospace and healthcare.

Credit: SIA.

The end of an electric journey

And so, our adventure draws to a close, leaving us in awe of the intricate symphony of science, engineering, and collaboration that transforms humble sand into the wonders that define our era.

Until our paths cross again, remember that the journey from sand to silicon marvels is a testament to human ingenuity and the endless possibilities that lie within our grasp.

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