ROCHESTER, N.Y., WASHINGTON (WROC, AP) — The House on Thursday passed a $280 billion package to boost the semiconductor industry and scientific research in a bid to create more high-tech jobs in the United States and help it better compete with international rivals, namely China.
The House approved the bill by a solid margin of 243-187, sending the measure to President Joe Biden to be signed into law and providing the White House with a major domestic policy victory. Twenty-four Republicans voted for the legislation.
“Today, the House passed a bill that will make cars cheaper, appliances cheaper, and computers cheaper,” Biden said. “It will lower the costs of everyday goods. And it will create high-paying manufacturing jobs across the country and strengthen U.S. leadership in the industries of the future at the same time.”
At home, Rochester Institute of Technology professor Robert Pearson, says that Congress passing the bill — and the President’s presumed signature — gives him “cautious optimism.”
I’m always amazed at what young people can do and what we can do in the United States. It does have to be managed in a wise, intelligent manner,” he said. That management of the new resources and regional hubs in his mind is the key to its success.
“When we wanted to put a man on the moon, we ran that program tight and lean and got results. I don’t know if we’re as good at this.,” he said.
He also is unsure that this level of investment will truly match or exceed China in this “semiconductor race;” he says that $280 billion may seem like a lot, but China has been investing $100 billion a year for some time now.
“If you think about your lawnmower, and you defer the maintenance, at some point (its) ‘you can pay me now or pay me later,'” he said. “So I view this act is a deferred maintenance payment.”
RIT has had a teaching semiconductor lab since 1982, but any discussion of these chips on a national level is good for RIT, Pearson says.
“The general discussion on a national level of the semiconductor industry will naturally help us by getting people interested in knowing that this is something that people view as being fundamental and necessary going forward,” he said.
The five year semi-conductor program at RIT is an intensive. Not only does the lab itself have more creation tech than most other universities, but the five-year degree ends with a co-op, launching students into the job market.
“Pretty much 100% of the graduates are getting jobs,” said Sean Rommel, with the Department of Electrical and Microelectronic Engineering at RIT. “And actually, we’re in a position right now that our graduates can be getting five offers from companies… Same thing as also applying for masters from my colleagues who are in microsystems, PhD engineering program, same deal.”
“These jobs pay $70-$80,000 to start,” said Michael Jackson at RIT. “And there’s a huge shortage of people with the skills. So I just want to encourage the young people to look into it, ask questions come visit us at our at anything we can do to help you make an informed career decision. That’s if I’m doing that. I got a fulfilled career.”
Statement from Governor Kathy Hochul:
“Here in New York, the CHIPS and Science Act will also bring record investment and countless jobs to industrial areas, which is why we’re working just as hard at the state-level to cement our status as a leader in chip production. New York’s Green CHIPS bill, which passed overwhelmingly in the legislature with bipartisan support, will grow the state’s semiconductor industry responsibly and sustainably with major investments in workforce and community development. The combination of the state and federal CHIPS bills – in addition to our diverse talent pool, rich local resources, and ongoing investments – will help New York create 21st century jobs and technologies and become a global capital for chip manufacturing.”
So what is a semi-conductor, anyway?
“They’re the basis of what makes all of the computer chips that we have today,” said Sean Rommel, Director of Microelectronic Engineering at the Kate Gleason College of Engineering. “A semiconductor is basically a material that can conduct electricity, and in other cases, it does not. It’s something that unlike a metal, we can add things inside of it that can change whether it can conduct.”
The modern day semiconductor traces its lineage back to the old school transistor, a device that both conducts electricity, and acts as a gate, sometimes letting electricity flow, sometimes not. Most people likely have experience soldering these to computer boards in high school shop or tech classes.
Today’s “integrated circuits,” which in shortage are also referred to semiconductors, have entire circuit paths, transistors, gates, and other “wiring” on a microscopic scale. Entire circuit boards can be contained on a silicon wafer at the size of a fraction of a human hair.
And, how exactly do these things get made?
It starts by separating the silicon from sand, forming a large crystalline ingot. The size of it can vary depending on the chips that are being made, and the capability of the facility. The ingot has a shimmering rainbow quality; that’s because once the sand is heated, it becomes glass.
“It’s a big crystal, that picture slicing up the bologna at the deli, these little discs of silicon crystals come off, then they’re highly polished, in that you’re starting material for your integrated for most of your integrated circuits today,” said Michael Jackson, Associate Professor, at the Department of Electrical and Microelectronic Engineering.
Once the ingot is sliced in that wafer or disc, it’s cleaned and polished. Then it’s coated with a liquid that makes part of it photoresistant.
“We put (the wafer) into a special camera, a very expensive camera,” Jackson said with a laugh. “They can go anywhere from $1 million to $80 million, depending on the resolution that you want. But we start to take pictures of your circuit.”
These pictures are essentially printed onto wafer with the camera, and dozens to hundreds of these circuits can be photographed onto one of these wafers, as they are the fraction of a size of a human hair.
Then they take an acid etching bath, to clear the circuit map — the parts that need to have exposed silicon to conduct the electricity — and then are “doped” to make them more conductive by slamming them with extra electrons.
This process is repeated multiple times depending on the kind of chip, essentially creating layers of “circuitry” onto a single wafer. Then the metal, like aluminum or copper, is finally added.
“The trick is to get everything back in the exact same location it was when we first set the family portrait, so to speak. And that’s called alignment overlay,” Jackson said.