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Semiconductors UPSC NOTE

 What are semiconductors?

  • Semiconductors represent a distinct class of materials that possess some of the electrical properties of both conductors and insulators.

  • Like a faucet which can be used to control the flow of water, semiconductors can be used to control the flow of electric currents, and with exquisite precision.

  • The most important type of semiconductor is the transistor. 

  • At the dawn of the era of modern electronics, the first integrated circuits featured four transistors

  • Together, they controlled the flow of currents in such a way that the circuits could perform simple arithmetic operations. 

  • Today, we have single chips boasting billions of transistors.

  • Fitting so many transistors on a tiny chip no bigger than a fingernail requires extreme precision and a microscopic eye for detail. 

  • For instance, the accuracy required is equivalent to dividing a strand of human hair into a thousand segments each of specific width, and further subdividing each segment into a hundred parts

How are semiconductors made?

  • The process starts with an engineer carefully selecting a silicon wafer as the foundation on which the semiconductor will be built. 

  • A team puts silicon, sourced from sand, through a meticulous purification process to separate it from other substances, until they have an ultra-pure wafer with impurity levels as low as a few parts per billion

  • Next is the photolithography process — a crucial step that carves the circuit pattern on the wafer.

  • The wafer is coated with a light-sensitive material called a photoresist. 

  • Then, a mask is held in front of the wafer and light is shined on it. 

  • The mask contains small gaps in the shape of the circuit pattern. 

  • The light passes through these gaps and erodes the underlying parts of the photoresist

  • As a result, the photoresist on the wafer ‘acquires’ the pattern of the transistor circuits.

  • Following photolithography, engineers use chemical and/or physical techniques to remove the uncarved parts of the photoresist, leaving behind the circuit’s structure on the silicon substrate.

  • Then they dope the semiconductor, that is, deliberately add impurities to specific parts of the semiconductor to alter its electrical properties.

  • It’s deposit thin layers of materials such as metals or insulators to the wafer’s surface to form electrical connections or insulate components.

  • Then the resulting product is packaged — individual chips are separated, encapsulated, and tested to make sure they’re functional and reliable — and integrated into electronic devices.

How do semiconductors benefit us?

  • Smartphones and computers showcase the pinnacle of semiconductor technology but semiconductors influence nearly every facet of our lives. 

  • Semiconductors also power ‘smart’ air-conditioners’ ability to regulate the temperature as well as space telescopes.

  • The ability to capture both awe-inspiring and scientifically interesting images in the depths of the universe, and many other technologies in between.

  • Many of the solutions to the 21st century’s most important crises — including artificial intelligence, electric vehicles, space exploration, robotics, personalised healthcare, and environmental monitoring.

  • Such semiconductor technology facilities foster innovation, create high-paying jobs, nurture the potential for deep-tech start-ups, and both draw from and feed into advances in materials science, computer engineering, big data, optics, chemical engineering, and chip design, to name a few.

  • Owing to their role in sectors like defence and automotives, semiconductors have also emerged as a focal point of geopolitical interest,.

  • The U.S. also imposed sanctions on Chinese tech companies, including bans on the acquisition of cutting-edge ASML equipment and high-end design software, for the same reason. In response, China has intensified efforts to bolster its domestic semiconductor production capabilities to meet local demand.

  • India, meanwhile, has been trying to use its expertise in design to establish semiconductor manufacturing plants. 

  • One hopes this strategic push plus the potential of our youth will translate to numerous opportunities for the country to seize the international semiconductor industry.


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