HENRIETTA, N.Y. (WROC) — We’ve been seeing the word “semiconductors” a lot more recently, as the many industries, particularly the automotive industry, has been facing supply chain issues for these parts. Naturally, there is a Rochester connection, and it’s at Rochester Institute of Technology.

At the Kate Gleason School of Engineering at RIT, we had three questions answered inside their semiconductor lab: What semiconductors are, how they’re made, and how these students are bolstering this growing industry.

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.

But semiconductors are more than a headline…

They’re a head start for students. 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 Rommel. “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,” Jackson added. “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.”

Professor Jackson says that the more students that apply for these programs, the more these jobs stay in America, grow our economy, and will likely strengthen the local supply chain.