Since the beginning of the health crisis, semiconductors are in shortage all over the world. Although this scenario was predicted in 2008, manufacturers around the world failed to anticipate what 10 years later would become the major crisis of electronic components impacting many sectors including the automotive industry.
Until now, the shortage has been in the production of semiconductors, but today the problem goes beyond that, as the chemicals used to produce semiconductors are drying up.
Let’s take a closer look at the situation.
What is a semiconductor?
A semiconductor is a material that is both an insulator and can conduct electricity.
More precisely, a semiconductor is a solid chemical compound. It can conduct electricity under certain conditions but not under others, which makes it a good way to control an electric current.
Its electrical properties allow it to be both conductive (like metals) and insulating.
It is also a heating, lighting (principle of the photovoltaic panel) or by subjecting it to an electrical voltage, it becomes a conductor.
Its many properties are the basis of all modern computing and makes all our computing devices work, including connected objects.
Semiconductors are mainly found in electronic devices, such as computers to avoid overheating, tablets or smartphones. They are also used in the manufacture of transistor radios, televisions, video game consoles, medical equipment, etc.
But the main application areas for semiconductors are Industry 4.0, aerospace and automotive.
Semiconductors are responding to changes in consumption patterns and current technologies in many industries, thus meeting the need for electrification, digitization, connectivity and artificial intelligence (AI).
In fact, the global semiconductor industry has reached a record annual turnover of more than 500 billion USD.
With such a growing semiconductor market and important strategic implications, chemical suppliers are under pressure to meet the demand, underscoring the importance of these components in modern technology.
What materials and products are needed to produce semiconductors?
Silicon is the most commercially used semiconductor material due to its good properties, natural abundance and economical processing cost. However, there are a few others: germanium, gallium arsenide or silicon carbide.
Several major steps are necessary in the manufacture of electronic components: from the creation of the famous silicon “wafers” in clean rooms to the final assembly of electronic boards and delivery to the customer (OEM, manufacturer, etc.), it can take up to 6 months.
The main suppliers of semiconductors are :
- Intel (IDM) : USA
- Samsung (IDM) : South Korea
- TSMC (Foundry): Taiwan
- SK Hynix (IDM): South Korea
- Micron (IDM) : USA
- Qualcomm (Fabless): USA
- Broadcomm (Fabless): USA
- Nvidia (Fabless): USA
- Texas Instrument (IDM) : USA
- Infineon (IDM) : Germany
- ST Microelectronics (IDM) : France
The manufacturing of these circuits requires multiple physico-chemical processes, such as photolithography, passivation, thermal oxidation, doping, metallization and etching, steps during which the circuit is realized step by step on a disc of semiconductor material, called the wafer.
As a result, a number of chemicals enter the manufacturing process, and these chemicals are currently under stress, further slowing down the production of semiconductors.
Semiconductors and chemicals :
The chemical industry is a key supplier to semiconductor manufacturing considering the fact that it accounts for $48 billion in semiconductor sales,
Moreover, semiconductors’ chemical suppliers have experienced high margins and growth due to the soaring demand from the health crisis (6% per year) and especially due to the constant increase in chemical purity and required specifications.
This not only limits the number of chemical suppliers to a few highly sophisticated North American, European and Japanese companies but also changes the important strategic implications for chemical suppliers including the race to the smallest nodes.
The semiconductor industry uses liquid chemicals in many applications such as chip manufacturing and crystal growth. The production requirements of this high-tech industry require the massive installation of clean rooms for the various manufacturing and treatment processes, including chemistry.
Wet chemistry is one of the most important technological steps in the realization of devices.
Semiconductor chemistry is mainly based on chemical treatment by solvents and acid-base etching of semiconductors.
- Solvent chemistry : the main chemicals used in this phase are trichloroethylene, acetone, isopropanol but also other alcohols such as denatured ethanol. Typical applications are cleaning, degreasing of semiconductors and removal of residual resins (acetone).
- Acid and base chemistry: the acidic chemical agents used can be sulfuric, nitric, orthophosphoric, hydrochloric, hydrobromic or citric acid. The solutions sometimes combine a base (oxidizing the semiconductor) with an acid (attacking this oxide): hydrogen peroxide, ammonium hydroxide (such as TMAH), sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide (mainly used for the etching of silicon).
Note that acids and bases are mainly used for etching semiconductors or for surface preparation (deoxidation) and regeneration.
Some of the acids used can be corrosive and toxic such as hydrofluoric acid, TMAH, mixtures containing iodine, bromine or bromide ions.
In the electronics industry and in particular in the semiconductor industry, hydrofluoric acid is the key product in the manufacture of silicon-based components. Its ability to attack silicon oxide and transform it into a soluble compound is the basis for many cleaning and etching applications. Hydrofluoric acid is used in combination with nitric acid to etch silica in mixture with ammonium fluoride solution, and also diluted as a cleaning agent and also to remove residual oxides.
Semiconductor Chemicals and Nodes:
The current semiconductor crisis has put the focus back on the need for capacity in the older nodes. The automotive industry and many industrial applications still rely on much older electronic architectures. This bias results in a much greater reliance on “next-to-leading” or even “legacy” semiconductors for automotive controllers, power electronics and sensors.
Only a few leading players, such as TSMC and Samsung, continue to focus on smaller nodes beyond 5nm.
These players need continued innovation in chemistry and materials to enable the higher levels of precision required by these smaller nodes.
The cost of defects in manufacturing processes is so high that these customers continue to define and verify chemical and material specifications directly.
That said, chemical purity requirements may not continue to increase, as in many cases “five 9” (99.999%+) chemical purity levels far exceed the purity of other components in the semiconductor manufacturing process.
To reduce contamination, other components such as piping and handling equipment, industrial gases and assembly line metallurgy must catch up to the standards offered by the major chemical suppliers in this area.
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