The digital economy is reliant on semiconductors, which form the backbone of most common technology devices. They are integral to the hardware that controls every electronic device, and these tiny chips power everything from mobile phones, ventilators, and IoT-based devices to autonomous cars, power stations, and defense systems. In the UK, the semiconductor industry plays a vital role in the country's innovation landscape and is the cornerstone of the government's goal to become a science and technology powerhouse.
However, the sector has come under intense pressure in recent years due to market distortions and geopolitical issues surrounding technology. The growing demand for chips worldwide has prompted a surge in investment as nations compete for influence and control over critical semiconductor technologies. However, when compared to other regions like Japan, the EU countries, India, and the US, the UK has fallen behind in its semiconductor strategy. One of the major reasons may be the lack of UK-based companies influencing the semiconductor strategy. Even top semiconductor players are controlled by entities outside the UK, and the ability to attract silicon-related semiconductor investment has slumped significantly.
In the face of these challenges, investments in a silicon-only strategy like building multiple lower-node silicon fabs might not prove useful. Rather, playing to its strengths, the UK can pivot its incentives and strategies toward strengthening its expertise in compound semiconductors (CS).
The UK already has a strong research base for CS, and with specialist companies and institutions such as Cardiff University focused on CS research, the country has a significant head start on this strategy. In the Sixth Report of Session 2022-2023: The Semiconductor Industry in the UK, the UK government has stated that one of the core strategies in semiconductors is "building on our existing strengths in compound semiconductors, design, and R&D through targeted measures to improve skills and financing for the semiconductor sector, creating high paying jobs throughout the UK." Investing in CS would be more impactful and cost-effective than pursuing a costly and competitive silicon-based strategy. The business projections for CS are also very strong. The global CS market reached $106.76 billion in 2021, and some predict it will reach $146.78 billion by 2027, achieving a CAGR of 5.45% during 2021-2027. Some predictions even place it above $200 billion.
Compound semiconductors are materials made of more than one semiconductor element, such as gallium arsenide, silicon carbide, gallium nitride, or indium phosphide. They are different from traditional silicon-based semiconductors because they have superior electronic properties that give them an edge. Compound semiconductors have a wider range of energy bandgaps, which means they can emit and detect light at different wavelengths, making them ideal for applications such as laser, LEDs, solar cells, and sensors. Additionally, compound semiconductors are better suited for high-power and high-frequency applications, such as wireless communication devices and radar systems. Owing to these and other key differentiators, CS is expected to easily outperform silicon in the domains below:
• Power (power electronics for electric vehicles)
• Speed (radio frequency for 5G, 6G, and radar)
• Light (photonics for computation and communications)
Rather than competing in building multiple silicon fabs, where funds have already dried up as major foundries have long announced fabs across the globe, the UK could focus on design, backend, and OSAT (outsourced semiconductor assembly and test) for silicon while concentrating on building multiple nano fabs, design houses, and OSATs for CS devices. The country could also work on attracting semiconductor talent from around the world, securing material resources for CS, and getting educational institutes to focus on high-tech industries.
Considering the worst-case scenario, where no other nation continues to provide silicon devices to the UK, one 16nm silicon fab could provide the UK with the necessary independence for advanced computing or defense-sensitive products. However, in the ideal scenario, multiple suppliers for silicon devices would be available if the UK becomes a reliable producer and supplier of CS devices. Hence building the 16nm silicon fab can be taken up after the CS strategy matures, as it will be fully worth having one.
The UK already houses prominent organizations that are making headway in alternative silicon technology. Sure-Core is an example of an organization whose consortium is developing cryogenic CMOS IP in GF-22FDX. The CSA Catapult was set up in 2018 to have a key role in the UK's compound semiconductor ecosystem in power, photonics, RF, and packaging. With investments of nearly £14m in collaborative research and development projects into devices and systems using compound materials such as gallium nitride (GaN), they have also leveraged £177m of direct investment and are forecasted to create or safeguard over 5000 jobs across the UK. These organizations are a testimony to the promise the UK holds out in the compound semiconductor space.
Considering these strengths in this alternative to silicon technology, these five pointers sum up a potential strategy that the UK could explore:
• If the UK becomes a major supplier of compound semiconductors, it possesses the potential to shift the landscape for European vendors who are mainly in automotive and industrial domains, where CS is pivotal.
• Developing a competitive semiconductor strategy without other nations is possible if the UK can focus its research, development, and industrialization efforts on CS.
• The UK should make continued efforts to attract semiconductor talents and tweak its education to prepare for hi-tech industries, including semiconductors.
• Drive incentives and investments toward CS and build a stronghold that other countries depend on the UK for.
• The UK can aim to achieve most of the global CS chip production using precise focus and strategy.
The dependency on chips has created an ecosystem where silicon alone will be unable to fulfill the needs and gaps in the market. Further, CS, with its prowess, will play a significant role in building devices for emerging applications in renewable energy, electric vehicles, implants, 6G, photonics computation, quantum computing, and more. With the capabilities of CS, the potential of the UK, and the rising need for omnipresent chips, the UK will be well-positioned to usher in a new wave of semiconductor development for global markets.
About the Author
Gandhi is a part of Cyient's Semiconductor business and is involved in technical presales, industry offerings strategy & innovation management. During his 17+ years of industry experience, he has obtained five issued patents and multiple trade secrets & research publications. Currently, he is fascinated with Quantum computing, Compound Semiconductors & AI-based Systems.