There’s a tendency from those within a scientific field of study to explain their work with terms that go over the heads of the average person. Scientists and those closely following the research will use be able to follow along without a problem, of course, but the vernacular can prevent someone from genuinely understanding a scientific subject.
From that perspective, the term “superconductor foundry” might seem pretty intimidating.
Simply put, a superconductor is a substance that can conduct electricity with little to no resistance at all. It allows electronics to work much more effectively than in the past, and we generally see superconductors used in integrated circuit chips – those small square items that you’ll find in nearly every electronic these days.
What is an integrated circuit chip?
Integrated circuits are a type of microelectronic chip that provides a smaller size and weight than traditional electronics that one may be used to seeing on a breadboard. The integrated circuits have components such as resistors, capacitors, transistors, and other various electronics that allow it to perform a variety of tasks. Integrated circuits are embedded in everyday life and have become synonymous with personal technology. Any piece of electronic equipment will likely have integrated circuits built into them. From the sophisticated, life-saving technologies used in a hospital to a simple snow globe purchased from a major retailer, integrated circuits control the electronic life around you to some extent.
One of the common uses of an integrated circuit is as an operational amplifier, which amplifies the analog signal that is passed through it. The micronized components also provide the ability to fit more electronics into a smaller area, further decreasing the size of the entire product and allowing for products such as the pocket calculator or smaller, faster memory for the computers of today.
There are generally two types of integrated circuits. One is analog whereby an electrical signal is processed via the Integrated circuits to produce some modified analog signal such as voltage or current. Another type is a logical integrated circuit. This works only for digital inputs. The technology for integrated circuits has come a long way since their invention by two independent researchers in the late 1950s. In fact, current technology is approaching single-nanometer diameter integrated circuits at the consumer level.
The companies that build superconductors
Building an integrated circuit today requires high precision, high-tech equipment, and clean rooms, and IC foundries have to create a dedicated workspace for their development. The base integrated circuit today is a silicon chip called a wafer. This becomes the backbone of the integrated circuit. A series of masks are employed to provide areas that are preferentially susceptible to chemical influence thereby changing the underlying silicon material. The masks allow for the precise deposition of material on the microscopic scale. Microscopic masks are created typically with an ultraviolet (UV) light source. These light sources can provide detail on less than a micron level providing the necessary microstructure for the ICs. Optical patterns can be employed to provide rapid and repeatable masking of the silicon wafer.
After a mask is applied, the unmasked areas are etched away. This provides a space for dopants to interact with the silicon wafer, providing the semiconductors needed the empower integrated circuits. Dopants, which are materials that are non-native to the silicon, are added through different processes. Depending on the dopant used, n-type or p-type silicon is manufactured. An n-type semiconductor is developed by adding a material such as arsenic or phosphorus that provides a free electron to the crystalline structure of the silicon wafer. The free-electron makes the area have a negative charge. To the contrary, adding dopants such as boron or gallium takes away free electrons on the surface creating an effective positive charge on the crystalline structure. These materials are p-type semiconductors. Strategically placing the n-doped and p-doped silicon adjacent to each other provides a semiconducting surface that can carry the charge. This idea is the basis of how transistors, diodes, and resistors all work on the microscopic level within integrated circuits.
Dopants are added through several different methods. All techniques deposit a chemical into the silicon and are typically done with physical or chemical vapor deposition, electrochemical deposition, or atomic layer deposition. Physical vapor deposition is one such process whereby a material is heated under vacuum into a vapor and physically deposited on the surface of the silicon. Chemical layer deposition is typically done when the intrinsic chemical property of vapor pressure is favorable and can produce a vapor under vacuum to deposit on the silicon. Electrochemical deposition utilizes reduction-oxidation reactions at the surface. The atomic layer deposition technique utilizing gases provides tiny amounts of gases to deposit atom-thick layers of material on the silicon. Clean rooms are required due to the microscopic or smaller level of precision needed for these techniques. Even something as unassuming as a piece of dust would ruin a wafer or more.
Once the integrated circuit has been masked, etched, and deposited on, the integrated circuit is ready for testing. This will provide insight into whether the microscopic wafer (or series of wafers) have been etched and deposited on correctly. This step is the quality assurance or quality control that is implemented to ensure the customer is obtaining working integrated circuits.
The current technology has lived up to Moore’s Law which states the technology will continue to improve exponentially year-over-year. That is, each year the speed, or capacity, or some other metric of technology has doubled itself. Speed and capacity of a computer system are directly dependent on integrated circuits. As new technologies become available for creating single-nanometer sized photomasks, along with the improved deposition practices, there is no doubt that the advances in technology will continue into the foreseeable future.