America’s CHIPS Are Now On The Table

Researchers in their full clean suit regalia at Penn State’s Nanofabrication Laboratory, a key player in America’s semiconductor R&D efforts.

President Joe Biden’s Hot President Summer has extended now into September, with the remediation of the railroad labor dispute the latest big news win for him, making this yet another good week for the prez. This is despite earlier in the week, Biden going to Delaware to vote got a response from many in the media that was basically WOW WASTING MONEY HE WENT A WHOLE 100 MILES ON THE TAXPAYERS DIME WHY DIDN’T HE MAIL IN VOTE HMMMM???? This is, of course, after little was said about Trump playing nearly 300 days of golf.

Anyway, buried in all of the good news this summer about Dark Brandon Calling Out the Semi-Fascists, the Inflation Reduction Act, and various other wins there was a huge win for Biden, and the country, that got relatively little fanfare. On August 9, Biden signed the CHIPS and Science Act.

To steal a line from The Rude Pundit, this is an occasion where my Clark Kent life and my First Draft life overlap. I am a science writer who scribes about materials research at Penn State. It is much more interesting work than it might sound, given the fact that right now, unless you are reading this in the woods, you are surrounded by materials both in obvious ways (your chair, your rug, your fake-ass wood floor, the entire structure of your home, your car, etc.) and not-so-obvious ways, such as the thing you are currently reading this on.

See, given this isn’t First Draft, the magazine you bought at the newsstand, and is First Draft, the online blog, the reason you are reading this post is due to semiconductors, better known to most as “chips.” Semiconductors are materials whose conductivity varies – in some cases it can act as an insulator, and in some cases it can act as a conductor. Perhaps the most famous of these materials is silicon. You might know this material for its importance in making computer chips, which include integrated circuits that can be used for either memory or processing and…I see I am losing you.

Anyway, they are pretty damn important, and are only going to get more important. Rail about technology all you want and claim to live a mostly tech-free life (odd if you are reading this unless you got your great-grandkid to print this out), but semiconductors are everywhere. Their applications include automobiles, sensors, appliances, military uses, space exploration, LED lighting, and so on. And despite the horrors of social media, they actually are beneficial.

For example, LED lights are no longer just novelties, but a low-energy lighting source with a low carbon footprint. They are also going to become more common. As will sensors, which are going to become more ubiquitous as well as we move into an Industry 4.0 world (industry-four-point-what now? Learn more here).

We learned how important the semiconductor supply chain is when it got disrupted during the COVID pandemic and automobile prices shot through the roof. That got a lot of people to start looking hard at the current American semiconductor situation, and many were alarmed at what they saw.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the United States’ share of global semiconductor fabrication capacity has been on a steady decline for decades, falling from approximately 40% in 1990 to 12% in 2020. Meanwhile, East Asia has been steadily investing in their semiconductor industry, so 80% of global chip fabrication is now done in that part of the world.

Among the countries increasing their investment is China. For national security purposes, in the future it would not be great for something as important as semiconductors to be dominated by an adversary, for obvious reasons.

So, we’ve dropped the ball over the last 10-15 years, and as one of my colleagues points out, semiconductors are going to be as vital as oil and gas production. There are investments in the CHIPS Act to remediate this, including R&D money. Universities like Penn State are ready to apply for grants to help with this. The good news is universities like Penn State are very good at this, in fact, Penn State is number one in materials science and number two in materials engineering in the country.

One of the big challenges to overcome moving forward is the fact that silicon has reached its limit. Moore’s Law, the idea that chip power doubles every two years, is no longer true and the advances are slowing because simply because the number of transistors that can fit on a chip is slowing. So, the hunt for silicon’s replacement is on, and two-dimensional materials, which are materials such as gallium nitride that are so thin they are an atom or a few atoms thick, hold a lot of potential. As semiconductors advance and become more common, finding this replacement is vital.

Another challenge is energy use, as computing consumes a huge fraction of the overall energy budget of the world. It is currently above 10%. It is projected to go to 21%. Computing uses a lot of energy due to how computers operate, using Von Neumann Architecture. This architecture’s key feature is that the memory chip and the processing chip are separate from each other. A considerable portion of the energy use in computing is associated with getting the data back and forth from the memory and the processors or between processing units. Potential solutions to this is changing the architecture so memory is right on top of the processor, which requires some creative physics, and developing computer chips that work more like brain cells and can solve big problems without using much energy

I haven’t even touched on jobs, but bringing semiconductor jobs back to the United States would also be a very good thing. Even if you have to work in weird light and look like an extra in a sci-fi movie (below is a 360 video of our nanofabrication lab, it’s interactive, take a look around).

To sum it up, the U.S. dropped the ball. But now, with the CHIPS Act, Biden and Congress (even a small number of Republicans voted for it!) have picked the ball back up. While it did not get much fanfare, it may end up being one of the most important things he achieved in 2022 (along with, hopefully, saving democracy).

The last word goes to those crazy German futurists, Kraftwerk.