What Materials Are Necessary for Computer Chip Fabrication?

By
EN
Emily Newton
on August 11, 2022
Electronic board toned blue

As of late, there has been mention of a major computer chip shortage – specifically, the materials used to assemble them – hampering computer chip fabrication. Since chipsets are used in nearly everything thanks to modern electronics, the event has affected automotive, manufacturing, logistics, computing, construction, and a host of other fields. But for those outside the development path, a pressing question is: What’s the big deal?

Which raw computer chip materials are responsible for such a shortage? And which materials are the most important for computer chip fabrication?

A Massive Industry for Computer Chip Materials

In 2019, there were over 2 billion computers in the world, counting servers, desktops, and laptops. But that does not factor in simple computers, achieved through chipsets and similar technologies. Still, that’s a lot, but it doesn’t explain how many are sold each year.

In 2021, the top five computer companies – Lenovo, HP, Dell, Apple, and Acer – sold 348,800 units globally. During that same time, about 1.35 billion smartphone devices were shipped by Samsung, Apple, Xiaomi, OPPO, and Vivo worldwide. These statistics don’t include computers one might find in heavy machinery, consumer vehicles, IoT devices, and so on.

However, from this data, one can reasonably glean just how massive the computer and computer chip industry is. Computer chip fabrication is at the heart of modern industry and is used for nearly every piece of hardware, technology, and recent system known to humanity. Knowing this helps make sense of why the chip shortage is such a far-reaching event.

The next question is: What raw computer chip material is in such low supply?

Green circuit board with components.

Raw Computer Chip Materials Necessary for Chip Fabrication

The materials used for computer chip fabrication, which essentially make up the innards of desktops, laptops, servers, and beyond, are part of one of the most complex supply chains in the world. Not only do they come from a variety of sources, but there are also many steps involved in turning them into components and shipping them where they need to be for assembly.

This complex supply chain is part of the reason why American microelectronics manufacturing is headed back to the USA, with domestic manufacturing opportunities favored. In time, some of the common complications should be mitigated, at least more than they are now, with a shorter manufacturing timeline that’s also happening closer to home.

Even so, it’s the materials and their scarcity that determine manufacturing and supply chain timelines in most cases. Here are the key ones.

Silicon Dioxide

Initially mined as silica sand or quartz, silicon dioxide is an essential element of many products, not just computer components. It’s also used for ferroconcrete, glass, solar panels, water production and, interestingly, as a proppant for oil and gas fracking.

More relevant to computer chip fabrication, silicon is a major ingredient of electronics, chips, and similar hardware. Luckily, the source material is readily available – it’s not rare or particularly difficult to find. It’s melted and crystalized, whereupon it’s refined, shaped, or cut down for use in modern manufacturing.

Silicon Wafers

Silicon wafers are still made of silicon dioxide, namely quartz. Some refer to them as separate materials because of how much goes into processing and refining them.

As the name suggests, the material is continually processed – often with the help of hydroxide or hydrochloric acid – to slim down its shape and finish the outer surfaces. They are commonly used in storage solutions such as solid-state drives (SSD), NAND flash memory, and conventional hard drive disks (HDD). Tin solder, gold wiring, and copper are generally used to secure the chips to a printed circuit board (PCB).

Hafnium

Certain chip makers, like Intel, began using rare materials with unique properties to speed up their chipsets and technologies. Hafnium is one of those materials. It’s incredibly rare and is also used for control rods in nuclear reactors. The material helps control fission rates for other rare materials like uranium and plutonium.

While rarer than gold, hafnium is used for plating on processors and is sometimes applied to pads, pins, and transistors. It’s certainly not used in bulk, but for designs where it is applicable, it’s extremely important.

Tantalum and Palladium

Tantalum and palladium are commonly used in transistors or capacitors and are often paired or layered with silicon. They make up quite a bit of graphics cards (GPU) or RAM (memory) cards, along with a host of other materials. Layering the two materials in this way can improve storage on smaller chips, making them both more capable in terms of performance but also larger in capacity, albeit with a smaller profile.

Chromium, Cobalt, and Platinum

Unlike flash memory, a conventional hard drive with moving parts requires a magnetic disk made of various metals. Some common materials used to this end include iron oxide, silicon, copper, zinc, nickel, aluminum, and more. However, some of the more important materials include chromium, cobalt, and platinum, which are rarer than the rest.

Precious Metals

Other common and precious metals are also used in computer chip fabrication, including zinc, iron, nickel, gold, copper, and aluminum. Varying amounts of each material are used within a full system, as computers altogether are composed of many different components, ranging from the motherboard to I/O (input/output) peripherals.

With desktop computers, it’s much easier to see how a bevy of components are assembled and connected to make the final product. With smaller devices like laptops, tablets, and smartphones, however, that’s not always so apparent. There are still many components that go into these minimized devices – they’re just designed to be more compact and often have unique shapes or form factors.

Silicon wafer for manufacturing semiconductor of integrated circuit.

The Most Common Components: How Computer Chip Materials Are Used

PCBs

While not a computer chip material on its own, printed circuit boards (PCBs) are one of the most sought-after components of any computer chip fabrication process. They form the skeleton upon which all other hardware is secured, installed, and interconnected.

Today, PCBs are made using a wide variety of materials, including plastics. They can be manufactured through varying means, as well. Additive manufacturing (3D printing), for example, has become increasingly common because it’s accessible and utilizes regularly available materials. Thermoplastics or fiberglass are the core materials, with conductive copper often used for soldering and electrical tracks.

Capacitors

Designed to regulate electricity, capacitors allow passthrough for AC currents while blocking DC currents from entering a circuit. The actual workings are a bit more complex, but inside computers and electronics, they ensure the appropriate voltage goes to the various hardware, like graphics cards, processors, and hard drives. Capacitors can also be used to store electricity, if only for a minimal period.

They’re composed of materials like tantalum, palladium, and ruthenium. They’re also responsible for supply chain and shortage issues because of where the materials are sourced. Typically, the related materials are abundant, but in troubled regions, like war-torn or conflict-heavy areas.

Transistors

Meant to amplify or switch electrical signals, transistors are used in nearly all electronics – they’re a basic building block. Because they’re composed of semiconductors, terminals, and flow – or solder – they are created with multiple materials. Notable mentions include silicon, germanium, gallium arsenide, and indium.

Resistors

To help better control the flow of electrical currents and create resistance wherever applicable, resistors are almost always installed in circuits. In their simplest form, they are electrodes made up of metal alloys like platinum, silver, and palladium.

Solder

Solder is a conductive material used to bind various components or connect them within a circuit. The most common material once was lead, but because of its hazardous properties, other metals are commonly used today, such as bismuth, zinc, indium, antimony, copper, silver, and gold.

Electrical Engineer is soldering on printed circuit board

Where Are the Weak Links?

Computer chip fabrication takes a long time – three months or longer on average. There are many reasons for this, including that it’s a complex process with many steps.

Many rare materials and metals are necessary to design, create, and augment a chip, from the core computer chip materials used on a PCB to the soldering used on its surface to create electrical flow. When one goes into a process with difficulties, first acquiring the materials, dealing with local conditions, and then getting those materials into the right hands, the challenges are going to compound throughout the entire operation.

Fortunately, measures are being taken to remedy these complications and lessen the burdens of the industry overall – such as programs to research new computer chips and – in the case of the United States – moving manufacturing operations closer to home.

 

 

Emily Newton, Revolutionized

Emily Newton is an industrial journalist with over four years of experience. As Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized, she regularly covers this industry and how technology contributes to its evolution.

 

*This article is the work of the guest author shown above. The guest author is solely responsible for the accuracy and the legality of their content. The content of the article and the views expressed therein are solely those of this author and do not reflect the views of Matmatch or of any present or past employers, academic institutions, professional societies, or organizations the author is currently or was previously affiliated with.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.