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Physics community crucial to writing next chapter on semiconductors

19 May 2023

The UK government’s semiconductor strategy is a good start but the key will be preparing for what comes next by investing in physics skills and developing a competitive edge on next-gen capability, writes Louis Barson.

One of the most pressing issues on the agenda of the international leaders gathering at the G7 summit in Hiroshima this weekend is the future of the supply and security of the world’s semiconductors. Sometimes described as being as important to the economy of the 21st century as oil was to that of the 20th, semiconductors are a crucial, high-value element in countless products across every sector of the economy.

Based on the semiconducting material silicon, they are the fourth most traded product after oil and auto parts and the lifeblood of digital technologies transforming society, 5 and 6G, the internet of things and artificial intelligence, and foundational to new industries such as quantum technologies.

The politicians and officials at the G7 know how important this industry is and the geopolitics around chips and their complex supply chains are becoming increasingly complicated. Over the last 12 months alone the US, China, and the European Union have all made major investments to stimulate growth in their industries.

And the UK government’s own strategy has also joined the fray, with the promise of up to £1bn of targeted investment in our industry along with the promise of a more strategic approach to the sector. This is a UK growth strategy framed from the outset by complex geopolitics, but the direction it must take is clear.

We cannot stand by while others dominate in an industry with such significance – it’s critical for national and economic security that the UK has domestic semiconductor capability.

But equally the UK simply cannot go toe-to-toe, pound-for-pound, with the world’s largest economies in terms of scale of investment. The challenge is to find a path within these parameters that plays to our strengths.

This must mean focusing on the future.

We cannot stand by while others dominate in an industry with such significance – it’s critical for national and economic security that the UK has domestic semiconductor capability.

As the fundamental limits of how many switches fit on a chip are reached, an opportunity window opens up for the UK to build on its strengths and develop competitive edge on the next generation of technology.

A lab technician with a colourful, circular semiconductor wafer

There are many exciting potential silicon disruptors.

Last year researchers at the University of Oxford, for instance, demonstrated an ultra-fast computing processor using photons of light instead of electrons – this has the potential to enhance computing density by more than 100x.

The UK also has competitive strengths in research and innovation on potentially game-changing semiconductor materials made from multiple elements, focused in and around the South Wales ‘compound semiconductor cluster’.

And there is also very promising work on semiconductors based on new ‘2D materials’ – where research at institutions such as the University of Manchester, the National Graphene Institute and the Royce Institute are leaders in a global race to commercialise.

Building on established strengths in these areas of photonics, compound semiconductors and 2D materials, alongside welcome investment in closely related areas such as quantum technologies, could make the UK’s innovation base very competitive at the leading edge of next-gen semiconductors.

So, it’s not surprising the IOP’s expert roundtable convened late last year with the Royal Academy of Engineering concluded there is a need for a national institution to support and build on these existing strengths: join up and boost support for fundamental research, business innovation, and people and skills across all educational stages – from school teachers, to technicians, and leading-edge scientists and engineers, while enabling smaller businesses to gain better access to critical design tools and IP, and supporting further development of a strong and coherent industry voice.

The National Semiconductor Strategy represents a logical response to this complex geopolitical situation by putting in place many of the fundamentals that should allow the UK to keep in touch with larger economies – that are themselves investing in the future of their industries. For that it should be celebrated.

But the key will be preparing for ‘what comes next’. It’s vital that government continues to support, and listen to, the UK semiconductor community and the associated research communities through the new industry advisory group. It’s only through a genuinely long-term approach of supporting and cultivating green shoots of innovation, collaborating with the scientists, engineers and business-people who are leading the change, supporting development of deep and patient pools of finance, and being ready to radically scale up investment when the time comes, that the next chapter can be written.

How do semiconductors work? (In simple terms)

  • Semiconductors are materials that can become conductors or resistors – they can be essentially turned on or off (like a light switch).
  • They are used to make transistors, the electronic switches that represent the 1s and 0s of binary code, translating between physical computers and digital inputs and outputs – the physics at the heart of the digital revolution.
  • The latest chips house many billions of transistors, with gaps between the elements rapidly approaching 2 nanometers, (the width of a single strand of DNA), and leverage quantum-scale processes such as quantum tunnelling.

Louis Barson is IOP Director of Science, Innovation and Skills