Why now is the time to localize semiconductors

11 April, 2022

Saudi Arabia's leaders in the field of fundamental research, application and the development of semiconductor technologies gathered at the first KSA Future of Semiconductors Forum, held in Riyadh March 30 –31, 2022, an event organized by King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), and the Research, Development and Innovation (RDI) Authority to explore strategies for developing a vibrant semiconductor industry in the Kingdom.  

Representatives from the Ministry of Investment also attended the forum, with sponsorship from Saudi Aramco, Yokogawa, JEOL, TRYSL TECH, and Cadence.  

Semiconductor-powered technologies are transforming our world; they form the foundations of pivotal future-enabling fields such as energy generation, sensors and information technologies, among others. The integrated circuit (IC) chip has been at the heart of technological innovation, and semiconductors, the backbone of the third and fourth industrial revolutions. 

Yet over the last two years, the world has experienced a severe global shortage of semiconductor chips — among the many challenges wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, and also as a result of the mass evolution of industries that employ semiconductor technology. 


Exponential demand 

Currently, most of the IC chips are manufactured outside the Kingdom, mainly in North America, Europe and East Asia. As a result, companies are struggling to meet demands. The automotive industry is one example. Chips are needed to produce new cars, and the shift toward electric car production has increased the requirement for more IC chips than ever before. Demand for computers, laptops, tablets and electronics also skyrocketed with the exponential rise in people working remotely at the height of the pandemic. And the rise of 5G networks has significantly accelerated demand.  

Dr. Xiaohang Li, KAUST associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, is one of nine KAUST faculty members who participated in the inaugural forum. Li said that in previous years, different governments were not active in investing in semiconductor manufacturing, development and research: "As a result, the manufacturing output remained relatively stagnant, while the demand went from linear to exponential."  

He said that the pandemic highlighted the critical need to better secure the global supply chain for semiconductors, and that many countries, including Saudi Arabia, have realized that having a domestic supply chain is key to stable employment, operations and national security. 

"Local semiconductor researchers and developers can play a very important role in diversifying the economy of Saudi Arabia," said Li. "As the Kingdom is keen to develop projects in artificial intelligence (AI) and other crucial fields, advanced semiconductor technology becomes vital to their success; without semiconductor chips, there's no AI." 

To this end, the forum was ideally timed to focus on a national strategic plan for advanced manufacturing and technological capability, with the goals of participating organizations aligned to the overall Saudi Vision 2030. The Kingdom anticipates many benefits from localizing electronic chips and semiconductor technology capabilities in diverse sectors, such as the digital economy, automotive industry, manufacturing and defense.  

Distinguished Professor Donal Bradley, KAUST's Vice President for Research said, "We're truly delighted to partner with KACST and the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology in the Saudi Semiconductor Program, and support the growth of new industries in the Kingdom. KAUST started its future of semiconductors initiative last year to draw together the many strands of our comprehensive semiconductor research and innovation activities, which span a wide range of materials, deposition processes, characterization and fabrication techniques, devices and systems, and multiple applications." 

Enabling sustainable future technologies 

Establishing a strong semiconductor industry and doing so sustainably requires a commitment to fundamental research. In his talk, "Sustainable Nanomanufacturing of Large-Area Electronics" as part of the Future of Semiconductors Forum, Dr. Thomas Anthopoulos, KAUST professor of material science and engineering, described his group's research toward developing gap-bridging technologies, from extreme downscale silicon transistors to larger and more sustainable solutions through printed electronics. 

Anthopoulos said that we're currently experiencing a hyper-scaling era, with advances in areas such as quantum computing, neuromorphic engineering, established silicon electronics, and large-area electronics, his area of focus. He believes the latter has the potential to dominate the landscape since it improves machine-human interface interactions and enables intelligent features to be integrated with ordinary objects. 

"I predict that we will see the rise of flexible electronics in the next five years. We've already seen a lot of prototypes and new industries being created," said Anthopoulos. "We'll see more soft or mechanically compliant electronics, or even transient electronics — devices that can be implanted in the human body and dissolve after they have performed a specific function. Such developments will most certainly lead to new, more sustainable industries of the future."  

As part of the Saudi Students for Sustainability seminar series, professors Anthopoulos and Li will be presenting a talk at KAUST on April 12, "Semiconductors: Towards Carbon-negative Technologies of the Future," about the growing need to consider circularity and recyclability in the semiconductor industry.