Did you know that there are many types of modern semiconductor devices for integrated circuits needed to satisfy the most demanding high-performance applications? Modern semiconductor devices are not like the simple bipolar transistor made in the mid-20th century that you could hold in your hand and look at with the naked eye. Instead, they are microscopic devices that are on the nanometer scale, vastly more sophisticated, and make possible nearly every piece of modern consumer technology from the smartphone in your pocket to the most advanced artificial intelligence systems and even military applications.
Let’s find out what the top five modern semiconductors devices for integrated circuits are, what sort of applications they help function, and why they’re so important.
The Need For Modern Semiconductor Devices
In this modern world, semiconductor devices are becoming increasingly essential. They play a prominent role in our daily lives, from assisting with communications to handheld devices and powering the Internet of Things (IoT). With integrated circuit applications in everything from automobiles and airplanes to personal computers and medical equipment, the need for semiconductors is at an all-time high.
As technology continues to advance, more powerful semiconductor devices are critical in keeping up with the demands of society. Improved semiconductor designs can be used to increase memory capacity and speed of performance as well as deliver greater energy efficiencies. All industries around the world will benefit from having access to modern semiconductor devices.
The newer improved microchips are not just faster and more powerful, but smaller in size. Many of the latest designs are now on the nanometer scale, allowing more semiconductor components to be packed into a tiny space. This allows for even more sophisticated integrated circuit applications. However, these advanced semiconductor device technologies require cutting-edge device fabrication technology to manufacture them.
Fortunately, the electrical and electronic engineers at the forefront of this field are developing new design and circuit simulation tools, processing methods, manufacturing equipment, and industry practices to improve production yield, and quality. These practicing engineers are also assisted by the exceptional contributions of scientists who research the device physics, metrology, and synthesis of semiconductor materials used in solid-state circuits.
The Top 5 Modern Semiconductor Devices For Integrated Circuits
Let’s find out about the most important semiconductor devices for integrated circuits used today.
Microprocessors For High-Performance Computing (HPC)
Artificial intelligence applications, weather monitoring, the Internet of Things, analyzing stock market trends, industrial monitoring systems, and other high-performance computing (HPC) applications require computers that are capable of processing vast amounts of data in real-time. These computer server units are often clustered together in data centers, and advanced algorithms run on their systems to process all the data.
The typical microprocessor on your laptop can do about three billion calculations per second if it’s a 03 GHz model. The microchips used in HPC can handle a quadrillion (a million billion) calculations per second in comparison. Intel’s Xeon line of microprocessors is one great example of these devices. Their first central processing unit (CPU), the 4004 which was made in 1971 had 2,300 transistors in it. A Xeon Platinum 8180 made in 2017 would have over 08 billion of them.
Flash Memory Technology
Flash memory is a storage and data transfer technology used in a variety of consumer electronics such as the memory cards in digital cameras, solid-state drives (SSDs) used in computers, smartphones, USB drives, digital music players like iPods, and even music synthesizers. It’s preferred over mechanical hard drives for storing data due to the shock resistance and fast read times of flash memory. Its also used in industrial robotics, scientific instruments, and medical equipment.
Dr. Fujio Masuoka who worked for Toshiba in the 1980s was the inventor of flash memory. Within a flash memory device is an array of flash cells. Each cell has a storage transistor with a control gate. There’s also a floating gate insulated from the transistor by using a thin dielectric or oxide layer. Electrical charge is stored in the floating gate which also controls the current. Adding or removing electrons from the floating gate will change the threshold voltage of the storage transistor. The voltage determines whether the cell is currently storing a one or a zero.
Recent advancements like multi-level cell (MLC) flash memory technology allows more than one bit to be stored inside a flash cell. 3D integrated circuit (3D IC) technology allows manufacturers to stack multiple flash memory devices on top of one another. V-NAND flash architecture which uses Silicon Nitride film to store charge is twice as fast while reading and writing. It also consumes less power and can support hundreds of layers stacked vertically. Samsung is currently leading innovation in this field with V-NAND flash chips that have 160 layers in development.
Field Programmable Gate Arrays
A field programmable gate array (FPGA) is a type of integrated circuit that is meant to be configured by the end-user and not its manufacturer depending on the functionality they require. This allows device manufacturers to develop hardware solutions that are optimized for various complex tasks in many fields. This includes monitoring and regulations of smart power grids, safety systems in automobiles, big data processing, neural networks for machine learning, MRI imaging equipment, as well as aerospace and defense applications.
An FPGA is made up of a combination of configurable logic blocks (CLBs), programmable interconnects, routing, input/output pads, and more components. The CLBs are the main building blocks and can be programmed to carry out logic-related tasks. The input/output blocks connect the internal circuitry with external ones related to input and output signals.
There are also on-chip memory blocks that provide the RAM, and digital signal processing blocks that are needed for communications applications. And all of these blocks are connected using programmable interconnects and routing which are built using semiconductor switches, allowing the end user to configure how they want their blocks connected.
The configuration of the FPGA is done using a hardware description language (HDL) like Verilog or VHDL. An application developer can use these languages to describe how their logic blocks should connect and operate. These instructions are called a ‘netlist’. Digital test benches can be used for circuit simulation to see how they perform their functions. Electronic design automation (EDA) tools can be used to run these tests. Once satisfied with the simulation results, the user can then write these configurations into the FPGA hardware using the manufacturer’s proprietary place-and-route software.
EDA tools are also used in the design of integrated circuits in addition to programming and simulating FPGAs. To learn more about EDA tools, read How Advanced Chip Design Is Done Today.
Application-Specific Integrated Circuits
Application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) are chips that are designed and manufactured for a very specific purpose rather than other general purpose or programmable ones we have mentioned so far. ASICs are custom-made by the manufacturer for a specific end user who is usually an electronic device manufacturer. Applications range from communications satellites to electronics used in kids’ toys, Bitcoin mining, video codec devices, network interfaces, and audio converters.
ASICs are usually proprietary technology and provide advantages like smaller sizes, better power consumption, and improved performance for that specific application. The downsides are that they may be more expensive and take longer to manufacture if made in small quantities. There are also semi-custom ASICs that come with predefined components that can reduce the production cycle.
Similarly to FPGAs, ASIC functionality is described using languages like Verilog or VHDL, and EDA tools are used to design and run simulations. Many of the building blocks used in ASICs like memory and logic components are similar to FPGAs, with the difference being that they often cannot be reprogrammed after manufacture. Device manufacturers use FPGAs for prototyping new products, and ASICs when they go into full production.
Other Programmable Logic Devices
Programmable logic devices (PLDs) are microchips that can be configured and used to build digital circuits which are also configurable at any time after their manufacture. Field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) are only one type of PLD. They are the most complex, having millions of gates included within them. In comparison, Simple Programmable Logic Devices (SPLDs) contain 600 gates or lower, and Complex Programmable Logic Devices (CPLDs) come with around 10,000.
Fewer gates in CPLDs mean less processing power compared to FPGAs. However, CPLDs have built-in non-volatile EEPROM, which allows them to retain information even when powered off. This is not possible for FPGAs which have a volatile memory. They are also relatively inexpensive compared to FPGAs, consume lower amounts of power, and produce less heat. This makes them perfect for portable battery-operated devices.
CPLDs are mainly used as bootloaders for more complex programmable systems including FPGAs. Furthermore, FPGAs have an unpredictable signal delay, although CPLDs offer predictable timing characteristics which make them suitable for real-time control applications.
Advanced Semiconductor Device Fabrication Technology
Semiconductor device technology has come a long way from the first bipolar transistor made by William Shockley at Bell Labs to the complex microprocessors made by Intel that contain billions of transistors within a few nanometers. In advanced semiconductor device fabrication, ensuring transistor reliability becomes more challenging as the complexities increase while the sizes continually shrink.
Deep ultra-violet was the conventional technology used to produce the circuit pattern on the semiconductor substrate. Many felt going to the next step which is extreme ultraviolet would be impossible, and many companies such as Canon and Nikon gave up. However, a Dutch company called ASML came up with the technology for extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography, which finally allowed semiconductor manufacturers to work on the 05-nanometer level or even smaller.
Currently, ASML has a monopoly on the semiconductor market with this cutting-edge technology, making it invaluable for the manufacture of high-performance microchips needed in artificial intelligence applications. Due to the ongoing China-US chip trade disputes, ASML has even been pressured by the United States to stop providing this technology to China.
Want To Learn More About Semiconductors?
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Microprocessors used in high-performance computing, flash memory devices, field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs), and complex programmable logic devices are some of the most important semiconductor components used in integrated circuit applications today.
Electronic design automation tools are used for the design and simulation of devices while a combination of fabrication methods including extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography, wet processing, and dry etch semiconductor processing, are used for their manufacture.