Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Compound Semiconductors and Microelectronics Components: Made in the USA

Parent Category: 2022 HFE

By Tom Perkins, HFE Senior Technical Editor

Recently there seems to be an awakening that the United States should be more self-sufficient in supply of many of the commodities depended on by both commercial and military users. Semiconductor supply, like sources for fuel, is a hot topic these days. Neither of these commodities “grows on trees.” Pandemic-induced supply disruptions and competition from China is placing more pressure on U.S. companies to manufacture semiconductors at home.

The number of companies making advanced chips has declined in recent years and innovative manufacturing has moved away. For example, a report created by the Semiconductor Industry Association and Boston Consulting Group found that chips made with sub-nanometer processes were made in Asia; 92 percent in Taiwan and 8 percent in South Korea. On the other hand, there seems to be plenty of fabless semiconductor companies In the U.S. They have considerable talented design personnel and excellent design software.

When questioned about the risks of relying on foundries not located stateside, they often explain their position by saying that fabless allows access to numerous manufacturing facilities with diverse capabilities in widespread parts of the world. The daunting costs of building, maintaining, and upgrading semiconductor fabrication equipment and facilities along with a wide variety of processes, helps to explain these business decisions. The encouraging progress to gain a foothold in semiconductor fabrication discussed herein mostly embraces non-RF/microwave devices, but still provides some optimism that we are moving towards less dependence on offshore sources.

“Planting” an Intel

There has been a recent thrust in the semiconductor industry to “bring back” and expand domestic supply capability. This cannot be accomplished overnight. It requires careful planning and huge capital investments in facilities and equipment and large numbers of well-trained personnel. In general, there are new moves to build out domestic capability. For example, a new Intel plant is being developed in New Albany, Ohio, where 1,689 acres are being rezoned from agriculture to a technology manufacturing district to accommodate companies including Intel which is planning to build a $20 billion semiconductor manufacturing complex (Figure 1). That Intel plant is expected to be operational in 2025. Obviously much economic growth will take place as hundreds of employees fill job positions.

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Figure 1 • Farmland in New Albany, Ohio, will Go High Tech Soon.


With regard to RF, microwaves and lightwaves and complimentary devices, there have been recent announcements.

RF and Microwave Compound Semiconductors at Hanscom AFB/MIT Lincoln Laboratory

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), New England District in Concord, Massachusetts announced a $278.6 million contract award to Gilbane Building Company and Exyte (a leading cleanroom constructor) joint venture partnership, Providence, Rhode Island to build an Advanced Compound Semiconductor Laboratory/Microsystem Integration Facility (CSL-MIF). Funding is provided by U.S. Air Force military construction (MILCON). Construction is scheduled to commence this spring (2022).

The United States military microelectronics experts plan to build the 162,000 square foot advanced compound semiconductor lab and microelectronics integration facility for multi-wavelength sources, large-format multi-wavelength detector arrays, RF and microwave electronics, high power electronics, and integrated photonics fabrication along with packaging of specialized advanced electronic prototypes. Applications for the technology include ground, air and space.

The new three story facility (see Figure 2) consisting of new laboratory and office space with a cleanroom complex will be at Hanscom Air Force Base, Bedford, Massachusetts. It will enable nearby MIT Lincoln Laboratory Advanced Technologies Division to apply and integrate advanced technology to meet national security challenges. Lincoln Laboratory (see iconic LL logo Figure 3 along with Hanscom logo) will install and calibrate the facility’s specialized microelectronics fabrication equipment.

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Figure 2 • Design Rendering of Advanced Compound Semiconductor Laboratory and Microelectronics Integration Facility at Hanscom AFB.

Hanscom has a long history with critical milestones dating back to early years of WWII. It provided training for fighter squadrons, a radar test site for MIT’s Radiation Laboratory, Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories (AFCRL), start of Lincoln Labs, Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE), Electronic Systems Division (ESD), and most recently became part of the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. Interestingly the B-25D Mitchell bomber that crashed between the 79th and 80th floors of the Empire State Building in thick fog on 28 July 1945 killing 14, had taken off from Hanscom.

Integration Facility at Hanscom AFB.

Existing Lincoln Laboratory compound semiconductor materials growth, fabrication and characterization facilities will be consolidated. Of the 160,000 square feet, 35,000 will be high-end (Class 10) cleanroom space, most of which will contain fewer than ten particles of 0.5 micrometers or larger per cubic foot of air. Typical office space air contains more than one million dust particles of this size per cubic foot. The cleanroom will sit on its own vibration-isolated floor. The floor beneath the cleanrooms will contain all the equipment supplying the cleanrooms, including the vacuum pumps, chemicals, and power supplies. With this setup, operations and maintenance can be performed without contaminating the cleanroom space. This architecture layout is fairly typical for semiconductor fabrication facilities. The floor suspended above the cleanrooms will house the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) equipment for controlling air flow. Means for proper management of hazardous materials and gases is of utmost priority.

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Figure 3 • Hanscom Air Force Base and Lincoln Laboratory Logos.


When fully constructed and integrated, the CSL-MIF will enable scientists and engineers to grow, fabricate, and characterize semiconductors made of two or more different elements most often from columns III and V on the Periodic Table known as compound semiconductors. Also, the technology involves packaging and specialized heterogeneously integrated electronic prototypes. The capability to integrate different semiconductor material systems and device technologies allows for the creation of customizable microsystems targeting many applications. Technologies of focus will include 3-D integrated focal plane arrays for scientific imaging and surveillance, integrated electro-optical systems for space-based optical communication, superconducting microsystems for integrating quantum information bits (qubits), and advanced 3-D LIDAR imaging systems.

The capabilities of the CSL-MIF will be complementary to those of the Laboratory’s existing Microelectronics Laboratory (ML), the U.S. government’s most advanced silicon-based research and advanced prototyping fabrication facility. “The combination of the new CSL-MIF with their existing ML infrastructure will be a powerful and differentiating resource for the Laboratory in the advanced microelectronics area. The two facilities together will allow engineers and scientists to explore and demonstrate complex heterogeneously integrated microsystems that could not be realized without access to the capabilities provided by these two specialized facilities,” said Craig Keast, associate head of the Advanced Technology Division and technical lead on the CSL-MIF project. An example of recent Lincoln Lab development, a Field-Programmable Imaging Array is shown in Figure 4.

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Figure 4 • Lincoln Laboratory Field Programmable Imaging Array with more than 6.6 Billion Transistors.


For the past four years, Lincoln Laboratory Capital Projects Office (CPO) staff have been working on the design architecture and engineering of the CSL-MIF. They chose a bottom-up design approach that incorporated comprehensive input from their research staff. Two of the critical design requirements involve control of vibration and contamination. Slight vibrations or the smallest amount of dust in the air can interfere with semiconductor device manufacturing and experimental research. The design team integrated these and other requirements into a set of construction specifications while adhering to budget constraints.

BAE Systems Rad-Hard Microelectronics for Military/Space

Another project is sponsored by U.S. Army, Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois. Army microelectronics leadership needed a company to develop next-generation radiation-hardened microelectronics components for military and space applications. They chose the BAE Systems Electronic Systems segment in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Officials at the U.S. Army Contracting Command have announced a $60 million contract to develop next-generation, radiation hardened by design (RHBD) microelectronics that use the Intel Corp. commercial foundry, Intel Foundry Services.

According to BAE Systems, the goal is to expand onshore access to state-of-the-art microelectronics technology for the U.S. government and aerospace community. This type of technology is available today in the United States only through limited sources, fraught by supply chain challenges and time lags for delivering next-generation microelectronics for space. Under this contract, the BAE Systems FAST Labs™ research organization will harness Intel’s commercial foundry process to build an innovative design library to develop advanced high-reliability microelectronics and expand the domestic supply of this technology for the defense and aerospace community. FAST Labs™’ Advanced Technology and Defense R&D is devoted to “Innovating disruptive next generation technologies to solve critical defense and intelligence problems.” Chris Rappa, Director of BAE Systems FAST Labs™ said, “Leveraging Intel’s commercial foundry to manufacture this technology can speed up the production of next-generation technology and help resolve supply chain challenges so we can maintain our country’s technological edge.” This award enables U.S. defense and aerospace companies to access advanced processes for application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs).

Currently, development of RHBD ASICs uses a 45-nanometer process. This process appears to date back to about year 2008. Now there is potential to deploy more advanced technologies and enable faster processing in smaller areas requiring lower power. Radiation hardening has traditionally been achieved by techniques such as Rad-Hard Cells, Insulating Substrates (SOI, SOS), Wide Bandgap Devices (GaN, SiC), Spot Shielding, Error-Correction Code (ECC) Memory, and Triple Mode Redundancy (TMR), to name a few.

In addition to working with Intel Foundry Services, BAE Systems will engage with Cadence Design Systems, Carnegie Mellon University, Movellus, Reliable MicroSystems, and Sandia National Laboratories. It is noteworthy that BAE Systems does have a Micro-Electronics Center foundry with 6-inch wafer GaAs and GaN capability in Nashua, New Hampshire, also part of FAST Labs™. They are a DoD accredited partner to the defense community.

Silicon in a Different Valley - Mohawk

Another company making microwave chips is Wolfspeed with headquarters in Durham, North Carolina. Their NYSE stock ticker was recently changed to “WOLF.” The name Wolfspeed is an homage to the company’s roots in North Carolina State University (the Wolfpack). Wolfspeed is currently building a Silicon Carbide fabrication facility in Marcy, New York (See Figure 5). The clean room provider, Exyte, like with the Hanscom CSL-MIF project is the design and construction delivery partner. Wolfspeed is driving the industry transition from silicon to silicon carbide.

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Figure 5 • Rendering of the Wolfspeed Mohawk Valley Fab Opening April 2022.



To meet the increasing demand for groundbreaking Wolfspeed technology that supports the growing electric vehicle (EV), 4G/5G mobile and industrial markets, they announced that the company is establishing a Silicon Carbide corridor on the East Coast of the United States. The $1.2 billion facility is scheduled to open at the end of April 2022; however, it is not expected to generate meaningful revenue until the 2nd half of fiscal year 2023. They recently made an agreement to supply silicon carbide devices to General Motors Company. They have a partnership with State University of New York (SUNY) Polytechnic as a source for talent.

It is billed as the “world’s largest silicon carbide device manufacturing facility.”  It is expected to provide more than six hundred jobs. This state-of-the-art power wafer fabrication facility will be automotive-qualified and 200mm (8-inch diameter) wafer-capable. It is complemented by Wolfspeed’s mega materials factory expansion currently underway at Durham. The new fabrication facility is expected to dramatically increase capacity for Wolfspeed’s Silicon Carbide (SiC) and Gallium Arsenide (GaN) business and will be a bigger, highly automated factory with greater output capability than currently operated.

wChips for America

The CHIPS for America Act would fund the semiconductor industry for $52 billion in subsidies over 5 years as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Unfortunately, as of this writing, although passed by the Senate in 2021, followed by the House of Representatives in February 2022, differences have not been resolved, and it is not yet law. Foundry activity in the U.S. may be reversing a dwindling trend and moving in a growth direction. Economic forces, coupled perhaps by political positions and foreign conflicts will drive future developments. Another over-arching factor could well be new advances in design and fabrication techniques.

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