Semiconductor Manufacturing Makes a Comeback in North America

By Mark Miller

Semiconductors—the tiny silicon chips that enable everything from smartphones to jet fighters—were invented in the United States in 1961. Yet, a White House fact sheet states that the global share of semiconductors made in the U.S. had shrunk from 37 percent in 1990 to just 12 percent in 2022.

The arrival of COVID-19 brought this decline into focus. The pandemic triggered the need for devices and technology to help keep us safe and productive. The problem was—and still is—there weren’t enough chips to meet the demand. That’s why government, academia, and industry in North America are working together to meet this challenge, and bring the making of semiconductors back to where they began.

Team Effort

The Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors (CHIPS) and Science Act of 2022 provides nearly $53 billion to bolster American semiconductor research, development, and production. It was signed into law in August 2022 by President Biden and is a catalyst for the participation and cooperation of key industry stakeholders. The Canadian government is contributing, too. It has announced the Semiconductor Challenge Callout to make targeted investments of over $110 million that build on the country’s strengths in semiconductor supply and development.

In the U.S., the private sector is making major investments. Samsung plans to create a $17-billion semiconductor facility near Austin, Texas and Intel is committing $20 billion to build two chip plants in Arizona, according to the report “Samsung plans to build a $17 billion chip plant in Texas” from CNBC. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing (TSMC), the world’s largest semiconductor maker, is also building in Arizona with two fabrication, or fab, facilities at an estimated cost of $40 billion. Micron plans to build the largest fabrication facility in U.S. history in the state of New York. It’s also expanding its Boise, Idaho headquarters to compare with the size of the Pentagon, according to the article “Micron files plan for Boise expansion” from BoiseDev.

Academic and industry collaboration is also a key factor. The Semiconductor Research Corporation (SRC), a consortium of technology companies, academia, and government agencies announced the Joint University Microelectronics Program 2.0 (JUMP 2.0). It will support research to achieve breakthroughs in microelectronics and semiconductor development. Intel is working with Arizona State University to provide hands-on semiconductor job training and Micron has announced the Northeast University Semiconductor Network, a partnership focused on the next generation of the U.S. semiconductor workforce.

According to Intel, chips are the most complex products in the world, requiring 1,200 multimillion-dollar tools and 1,500 pieces of equipment to produce.

Keep It Clean

While these efforts will help bring chip-building back, it remains an expensive and risky endeavor. A publication from Intel entitled “What does it take to build a fab?” claims that chips are the most complex products in the world, requiring 1,200 multimillion-dollar tools and 1,500 pieces of equipment to produce.

Just how complex and delicate chip-making can be is illustrated by the fabrication process. It must be conducted in cleanroom facilities, where wafers are transformed into final chips. Throughout the process, the nascent chips face an array of enemies. Dust, particles, and human contamination can cause severe damage. Electrostatic discharge can lead to defects by drawing particles to the surface of the wafers. Moisture and humidity can evaporate solvents prematurely. Any of these conditions may mean the loss of some portion of the billions being spent.

Powering the Future

Given the costs and threats, what’s the return? Certainly, chip-making appears profitable. The Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) reports that sales totaled $574.1 billion in 2022, the highest annual total ever. The U.S. and Canada look to bring some of that money to North America to create jobs and economic prosperity.

But there’s more at stake. Made from silicon, the second-most abundant element on Earth, semiconductors are nearly as pervasive as their essential ingredient. They power our televisions, computers, medical equipment, automobiles, and more. They connect us and help us collaborate and innovate. Investing in their future—in North America or around the globe—is an investment in our own.

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Mark Miller is a Thermo Fisher Scientific staff writer.

Semiconductor Manufacturing Makes a Comeback in North America