Editorial Feature

A History of the Semiconductor Chip

The semiconductor chip has significantly impacted modern technology, enabling numerous electronic devices and advancing the digital age.

A History of the Semiconductor Chip

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This article overviews early developments in semiconductor technology, the evolution of semiconductor chip manufacturing processes, their applications across various industries, and current trends and prospects.

Early Developments in Semiconductor Technology

In 1782, Alessandro Volta was the first to use the term "semiconducting" to describe the electrical properties of certain materials. In 1833, Michael Faraday observed that the resistance of silver sulfide (Ag2S) decreased with increasing temperature, a behavior different from that of metals.1

In 1874, Karl Ferdinand Braun observed rectification and conduction in metal sulfides probed with a metal point, a discovery that would later be crucial for developing radio and radar systems. The same year, Arthur Schuster noticed the rectification effect in a circuit made of copper wires, leading to the identification of copper oxide as a new semiconductor material.1

These early discoveries laid the groundwork for future advancements in semiconductor technology, but significant progress did not occur until the mid-20th century.

Invention of the Transistor

The invention of the transistor in 1947 by John Bardeen and Walter Brattain marked a pivotal moment in semiconductor history. While the operational mechanics were initially unclear, John Shive's experiment in 1948 confirmed that the transistor's operation was based on bulk conduction, aligning with William Shockley's theory on p-n junctions and junction transistors.1

The first grown junction transistors emerged in 1952, followed by the simpler alloyed junction transistor and higher performance diffused transistors in silicon and germanium by 1954-1955. The planar transistor, introduced by Jean Hoerni in 1960, utilized an oxide layer for passivation, further advancing transistor technology.1,2

Emergence of Integrated Circuits

While the transistor was a significant leap forward, individual transistors still needed to be interconnected to build electronic circuits.

In 1958, Jack Kilby at Texas Instruments designed the first integrated circuit (IC), where multiple devices were fabricated on a single silicon substrate and interconnected by wire bonding. Independently, Robert Noyce at Fairchild Semiconductor developed a similar IC concept with aluminum interconnects on a silicon dioxide layer in 1959. 1,2

Evolution of Semiconductor Chip Manufacturing Processes

The semiconductor industry has continually evolved, driven by the pursuit of smaller, faster, and more efficient chips. From manual fabrication to today's highly automated and precise processes, semiconductor manufacturing has transformed remarkably.

Key milestones include the adoption of lithography techniques, where geometric patterns are transferred onto a wafer using light. The development of extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography in the late 1990s facilitated the reduction of feature sizes to nanometer scales. Immersion lithography techniques enhanced resolution and depth of focus for finer patterning, achieving feature sizes as small as 20 nm.3

The size of silicon wafers used in chip manufacturing has also increased over time, from 1-3 inches in the 1970s to larger 12-inch wafers, improving manufacturing efficiency and cost savings. The introduction of even larger 18-inch wafers promises further improvements.3

Moving beyond the 20nm process node, the industry adopted three-dimensional (3D) transistor structures, such as fin field-effect transistors (FinFETs), in 2011. These 3D transistors reduced transistor leakage currents and offered improved performance and power efficiency, allowing further scaling.2

In 2022, TSMC commenced high-volume production of its 3 nm FinFET (N3) technology, marking a notable advancement from the previous 5 nm process, allowing for smaller and more powerful transistors on a single chip.4

Impact of Moore's Law

In 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore predicted that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit would double every two years, resulting in exponential growth in computing power while reducing the cost of computing by half.

This observation has driven continuous enhancements in electronic devices' performance, energy efficiency, and cost-effectiveness.

While Moore's Law is nearing its physical limits, as transistors approach the size of individual atoms, it has been a testament to human ingenuity and the semiconductor industry's relentless pursuit of progress.5

Major Milestones in Semiconductor Chip History

In addition to the invention of the transistor and integrated circuits, several other milestones have shaped the history of semiconductor chips.

  1. The invention of the metal-oxide-semiconductor field-effect transistor (MOSFET) in 1963 offered higher density, lower power consumption, and a simpler manufacturing process than bipolar transistors.1
  2. The development of the first microprocessor (Intel 4004) in 1971 laid the foundation for personal computers.6
  3. The introduction of extreme- and deep-UV lithography in the late 1990s enabled the manufacturing of smaller and more complex chip designs.2
  4. The adoption of FinFET transistors in 2011 offered improved performance and power efficiency.2

Applications Across Industries

Semiconductor chips have become indispensable across various industries, contributing significantly to global development and technological advancements.

In computing and information technology, they form the backbone of modern devices, including computers, laptops, tablets, servers, and data centers, enabling vast data processing and storage. These chips are also found in virtually all modern consumer electronics, from TVs and cameras to consoles and smart home devices.

In automotive, semiconductor technology enhances vehicle performance, safety, and efficiency through ADAS, infotainment systems, ECUs, and sensors. In healthcare, these chips enable advanced medical equipment like MRI machines, pacemakers, insulin pumps, and digital thermometers, improving patient care and driving medical research.

Semiconductor chips also contribute to developing renewable energy technologies, including wind turbines, solar panels, and energy storage solutions, supporting global efforts to promote sustainability and combat climate change.7

Current Trends and Future Prospects

The semiconductor industry continues to evolve rapidly, driven by the demand for faster, smaller, and more power-efficient devices. Emerging trends shaping the future of semiconductor manufacturing include:

Advanced Process Nodes: The development of advanced nodes, such as 3nm and beyond, will provide higher transistor density, improved performance, and reduced power consumption, pushing the boundaries of Moore's Law.

3D Integration: Stacking multiple layers of chips vertically using through-silicon vias (TSVs) and interconnect technologies could increase functionality, improve performance, and enable heterogeneous integration of different functionalities on a single package.

Emerging Materials: The exploration of emerging materials like Silicon Carbide (SiC), Gallium Nitride (GaN), and 2D materials like Graphene holds promise for high-power, high-frequency applications, flexible electronics, and faster transistors.

Specialized Applications: There is an increasing need for specialized semiconductor devices tailored to specific applications, such as AI chips, IoT devices, autonomous vehicles, and advanced sensors, to meet unique requirements like low power consumption and high computational power.8

The history of semiconductors is marked by pioneering discoveries, manufacturing breakthroughs, and relentless miniaturization, which have transformed modern life.

Despite ongoing challenges, the semiconductor industry's commitment to innovation continues to drive progress, shaping the future of electronics and enabling transformative applications poised to revolutionize our lives.

More from AZoNano: What is Atomic Layer Deposition?

References and Further Reading

  1. Łukasiak, L., Jakubowski, A. (2010). History of semiconductors. Journal of Telecommunications and information technology. doi.org/10.26636/jtit.2010.1.1015   
  2. Lammers, D. (2015). Moore's Law Milestones. [Online] IEEE Spectrum. Available at: https://spectrum.ieee.org/moores-law-milestones
  3. Zhang, L. (2014). Silicon process and manufacturing technology evolution: An overview of advancements in chip making. IEEE Consumer Electronics Magazine. doi.org/10.1109/MCE.2014.2317896
  4. TSMC. (2024). 3nm Technology. [Onlie] TSMC. Available at: https://www.tsmc.com/english/dedicatedFoundry/technology/logic/l_3nm
  5. ASML. (2024). Moore's Law - An 'empirical law of economics' from 1965 that still holds true today. [Online] ASML. Available at: https://www.asml.com/en/technology/all-about-microchips/moores-law
  6. Intel. (2024). Intel's First Microprocessor. [Online] Intel. Available at: https://www.intel.com/content/www/us/en/history/museum-story-of-intel-4004.html
  7. Marwala, T. (2023). Technology Brief - Semiconductor Chips for Sustainable Development. [Online] United Nations University. Available at:  https://collections.unu.edu/eserv/UNU:9267/UNU-TB_2-2023_Semiconductor-Chips-for-SD.pdf
  8. Khan, M. (2023). How are Semiconductors Made? A Comprehensive Guide to Semiconductor Manufacturing. [Online] Wevolover. Available at: https://www.wevolver.com/article/how-are-semiconductors-made-a-comprehensive-guide-to-semiconductor-manufacturing

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Owais Ali

Written by

Owais Ali

NEBOSH certified Mechanical Engineer with 3 years of experience as a technical writer and editor. Owais is interested in occupational health and safety, computer hardware, industrial and mobile robotics. During his academic career, Owais worked on several research projects regarding mobile robots, notably the Autonomous Fire Fighting Mobile Robot. The designed mobile robot could navigate, detect and extinguish fire autonomously. Arduino Uno was used as the microcontroller to control the flame sensors' input and output of the flame extinguisher. Apart from his professional life, Owais is an avid book reader and a huge computer technology enthusiast and likes to keep himself updated regarding developments in the computer industry.

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