This Week, Industry Snapshot Looks
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This Week's Industry
Gallium arsenide (GaAs) is a semiconductive material that can be used to
make semiconductors in place of silicon. Right now a vanguard of semiconductor
manufacturers are using gallium arsenide because the substance produces
substantially faster chips that generate less heat. Although in the past
working with gallium arsenide has been more difficult and consequently cost
prohibitive, new manufacturing techniques have made the use of gallium arsenide
in consumer applications possible. This Industry Snapshot provides an overview
of this emerging market and the key players.
A simple compound of the metallic element gallium, GaAs offers the promise
of higher-performance chips. The electron mobility of GaAs is four to five
times higher than that of silicon. This means that at high frequencies GaAs
generates less heat, making it a much more efficient material. Even operating
at "normal" frequencies, a GaAs chip is simply much faster than the same
chip made of silicon. So why don't we have Gallium Arsenide Valley instead
of Silicon Valley? Silicon's price is ridiculously low compared to GaAs and
it is much easier to work with -- the reason why 99.9% of the "chips" sold
globally are still made of the stuff. To borrow from the popular real estate
mantra, GaAs is all about "performance, performance, performance."
Manufacturing Problems Solved
Because of the cost, demand for high-frequency GaAs chips has been confined
to the military radar and satellite applications. As sales to the military
didn't exactly spawn a high-volume market, building chips for very specific
functions that cost $1000 to $2000 a pop prevented anyone from seriously
considering commercial markets. The problem was that yields from GaAs wafers
fluctuated quite a bit. Yield refers to the amount of commercially viable
chips that are completed by the end of the manufacturing day after all the
complex process steps have been performed on the wafer. This variability
in yields was one the factors that contributed to GaAs manufacturer shakeouts
throughout the 1980s.
The GaAs companies utilize essentially the same process technology as the
silicon chip makers. In fact, the majority of their initial manufacturing
facilities were acquired from silicon fabs. The manufacturing process starts
with a pure crystal of GaAs that is typically grown from seed crystal, which
is then sliced into ultra-thin "wafers" with a diamond saw. The wafers are
then polished to a flat mirror finish in anticipation of the deposition of
hundreds of circuit layers. In the early stages of GaAs development, operators
couldn't count on getting wafers that were of uniform shape or size, which
made forecasting for high-volume manufacturing extremely difficult. Yield
crash is still a problem for some manufacturers. This is when yields decline,
for instance, from 50% to 10%, all in a matter of days due to chemical
contamination or a whole host of other problems that have largely been eliminated
when working with silicon.
Over the past decade Gallium Arsenide integrated circuit technology has overcome
many of these performance barriers that hampered its initial development.
It is only recently that the manufacturing process has matured to the point
where high-volume commercially viable products have been churned out. Today
the GaAs industy is undergoing a conversion from 4 to 6 inch wafers, which
will boost yields, but still lags behind in comparison to their well-endowed
brethren in the silicon wafer arena that use current wafer sizes of 8 inches
and moving to 12 inches in the future. It is estimated that under current
conditions 80 silicon chips can be produced with the same fab resources required
to produce one gallium arsenide device, meaning that GaAs is still limited
to high-performance applications where the performance justifies the cost.
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