January 24, 2012

Silicon is dead — long live GaAs


Silicon semiconductor wafers like this one may not be in use much longer as our energy needs demand greater efficiency than what they deliver. Other technologies, such as Gallium Arsenide chips, could usurp silicon in the near future. (Damon Hart-Davis photo)

Story by Staff

We know oil is increasingly scarce, we know of the need to conserve the world’s supply of fresh water and we know that the demand for more electricity around the world will strain global resources. What few people will tell you, however, is the tiny component that has driven so much of the computerization and mobility of the world has reached its peak output and that’s as important to the clean energy movement as the concept of peak oil.

The silicon-based semiconductor chip can’t do much more than we’ve asked it to do. To produce faster, smaller, more efficient technology a new computer chip needs to be developed. Laboratories across the world are scurrying to find a replacement.

A December article in the New York Times stated: “There is a growing consensus among engineers and industry executives that silicon’s days are numbered.”

That article touts the potential of chips with carbon nanotubes as successors to the silicon semiconductor technology. But chips with carbon nanotubes, microscopic components that are each as small as 12 atoms wide, are still in the early development phase. The more immediate winner in the search for a new semiconductor may very well be the technology that lost out to silicon more than 25 years ago. Gallium Arsenide (GaAs) was passed over by the chip-making industry because it was less abundant and less predictable than silicon. Researchers, however, have had significant breakthroughs with GaAs in recent years and there seems to be growing interest in GaAs as a silicon replacement. Not only is GaAs already used in smartphones and other mobile devices, NASA has adopted it, partly because chips using gallium arsenide have proven to hold up better to solar radiation.

For that reason alone, the future of GaAs seems particularly bright. As the use of solar technology expands, the efficiency and durability of GaAs chips become more valuable. One company that may be on the cusp of significant revenue growth because of its investment in GaAs is Opel Technologies, which has headquarters in Toronto and Shelton, Connecticut. Opel has developed and patented a semiconductor chip using its Planar Opto Electronic Technology (POET), which last year was estimated to be worth more than $1 billion by the valuation services firm Pellegrino & Associates. If POET proves viable in commercial applications, it will dramatically speed up the processing speed of smartphones and computers, and, perhaps most importantly, will allow servers to have much larger storage capacity.

With numerous contracts with the U.S. Department of Defense and increasing orders from around the world for its GaAs-equipped solar trackers, Opel may prove to be an oracle for what’s to come in a post-silicon energy world.

“Our solar business is going tremendously,” Opel CEO Leon M. Pierhal told in September, saying the company had orders that would prove to be “phenomenal” for 2012.

Although GaAs remains more expensive than silicon, less of it is needed in the construction of semiconductor chips, which is a big benefit to companies like Opel, and also an incentive for developers of commercial applications to utilize it.

“The rapid adoption of sophisticated multi-band, multi-mode smartphones is increasing the demand for GaAs power amplifiers, which is driving the entire GaAs device market,” Eric Higham of Strategy Analytics wrote last year after the GaAs market came off a record year of growth (36 percent) in 2010. Because of the slowdown in the rate of cellphone sales, GaAs only grew 1 percent in 2011, but analysts expect it to bounce back this year.

For energy conservationists, the success of GaAs (or any silicon challenger) is crucial. We need more energy efficiency and silicon, for all it has yielded over the years, is showing it’s reached the limits of what it can deliver.

Do you think GaAs can succeed silicon? Email with your thoughts on this debate with huge implications for the future.

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