The same companies that make the EDA tools also make IP blocks that semiconductor companies purchase, so it's in their best interest to prevent an open source hardware scene from thriving. I get that making masks for a chip is expensive for a startup. But if the design, verification, and layout steps were cheaper and more streamlined, I would bet money that the fab costs would work their way down in clever and creative ways.
I haven't seen the deep end of the software as you get closer to the fab, but I'm guessing it's worse.
Starting that train now is quite difficult. Lots of inertia to overcome with pre-existing closed source tools being chosen by default at colleges and companies.
It's just you actually have to make some working product in semiconductors, it's a substantial technical undertaking, and thus a big turn off for the aforementioned billion dollar internet startups.
It's not like giant checks are generally being written to these startups that have no users and no engineering done yet.
It seems like a VC pulled out, they were forced to sell to a big company at a terrible price, and then that company discontinued all their products shortly after.
As an aside, It's a story I've heard over here (Australia) quite a few times as well. It makes me wonder if we are capable of playing in the big leagues (Atlassian being an obvious exception here).
[a] For example, an inventor could license their IP (the patent or whatever) to a company they create with a clause that the license can’t be sold (this has varying success from my understanding)
Since 1990 there have been no foundry or IDM (vertical) startups funded by Sandhill road VCs. ZERO. Zip. Nada.
Fabless have been founded exclusively by VCs. But they are NOT the current bottleneck. It's foundries that are. E.g. TSMC, Samsung, Global Foundries, etc. And further ANY future innovation will NOT come from fabless companies - it will be from semiconductor HW companies or their supply chains.
Basically Silicon Valley going all out into software/internet/social media has completely obsoleted the professional ecosystem there. And most of the people who were part of the prior ecosystem have been retiring or dying or have moved on to other things. All never to return.
In general to do anything OTHER than fabless especially since 1995 (which is about the year that semiconductor companies started RACING out of 'Silicon Valley' never to return), you've had to get startup funding from anyway BUT VCs generally and usually only from Angel/VC investors OUTSIDE OF California.
I know because I've founded such companies. I'm a HW guy with device physics, circuits and similar training with software added on. We had to bootstrap hard and then only ever got funding from foreign companies or non-California investors. My last startup was bought by a Taiwanese company.
So I'm dubious and I also know well that the US no longer has the professional ecosystem to support semiconductor HW plays - the US literally needs to start from scratch (like it's 1950-1960) because it's already pissed away everything that would allowed a quick and cheap re-entry. Honestly the better investment is to so other things like follow where the money went (e.g. like my last company).
People grandiosely wanting this don't even know what the right questions are anymore. You would have had to have "gone to Asia" (like I did) to keep up.
The best hope right now is TSMC in Phoenix and Samsung's planned expansion (location still TBD but it's between Phoenix, Austin and Malta apparently) plus GFs Malta expansion. Most importantly: Silicon Valley will never rise again in this market.
But fab is extremely capital intensive and complex to setup, I don’t think this is the realm of startups anymore.
Then a completely new way of steel production came about. Nothing iterative about it, a completely different set up that came with its downsides but had better economies of scale.
If there is a change to come, it's not by building a bigger fab that has higher capital costs. It's by making the idea of a fab entirely obsolete by finding a way to bypass all the steps involved in the current manufacturing process and producing a slightly inferior product in some way but isn't a multi-month long process with capital costs measured in $10s of billions. Fabless manufacturing was a great boon in its time by changing the business model around fabs but it didn't change the underlying engineering. Somebody, ultimately, owned a fab in the chain.
The real trick will be something that bypasses the whole idea of pure crystal ingots as the core of the process that has to be processed in batches with 100s of steps. Something more continuous and simplified would be revolutionary. Hypothetically, imagine instead of growing a perfect crystal and etching or doping it, you grew an imperfect crystal but that growth was controlled in the direction that got you 80% of the way to the layout of the final design. Or imperfections were embraced and utilised as a feature for randomised bias in AI cores than a flaw that wasn't tolerated.
All of this, hypothetical of course, but my point is even if we are at the end of this fabbing game, the real trick is creating a completely new game entirely.
I'm convinced that there are plenty of design space that is not explored. In particular, the fabrication process today is mainly 2 dimensional with a very high necessity of control.
If you relax one of this strong constraint and build the system bottom-up instead of top-down. It reduces to a search for the chemical compound, which can self-assemble into an interesting structure. It should look like a biological machine but running at computer frequency.
Plenty of nano-computing units interacting. For example today we can already build some silicon-nanorobots ( https://www.electronicdesign.com/industrial-automation/artic... ). Give each one a small memory unit, processor, and radio-link, and you can build tons of them on imperfect crystal using standard process. Then your processor is a 3d volume of these bots instead of a 2d-surface. You will still be constrained by heat dissipation but if you put them inside a liquid, it would be less problematic, but you'll have to compensate for nano-processor brownian drift.
Page 19 talks about the history of the mini mill in steel production.
- someone who worked at a semiconductor startup
Then again, so many other failures.
It's just unsatisfying to the world to have absolutely no new evidence, no points of data, no benchmarks in capitalism, no way to figure out what to expect of product, when interesting companies are acquihired & their efforts to do good pulled into the spider web of megacorp-ism. The world literally learns nor understands nothing, after Nuvia got bought. Whatever comes out will be a synthetic other. Similar to so many other acquisitions. The backing of the larger company changes the effort itself, & diminishes the competitiveness of the offering.
And the intent to support the thing well, the desire to form a solid community: dead. The new corporate largess defines the environment for whatever might ship. There will be no radical new upstreamings, new mainlinings. It will be business as usual, alas, most probably: closed, highly proprietary vendor drops. An anti-free anti-accessible system of chipmaking, unsupportability-writ-large, re-asserting itself, over what might have been.
It seemed the world might get a sip of that sweet ambrosia, but now we all sip again as we are permitted from the great leadened chalices. Nothing new will be offered.
Of more concern are the energy and clean water input, and the ability to cleanly dispose of used solvent. Much of the old silicon valley factories are now "superfund" cleanup sites because of this.
The rare elements may be needed as dopants, when they are needed in very small quantities for each device, but those quantities add to non-negligible values for the entire huge production of semiconductor devices.
However, the rare elements can also be the main constituents for the so-called III-V and II-VI semiconductors.
The fact that the other better semiconductors require large quantities of rare elements has been a very important reason that has prevented the replacement of silicon in a large number of applications where it is an inferior solution.
For example, the GaN transistors and the white LEDs need not only gallium but also relatively large quantities of the much less abundant indium, which might limit some time in the future the expansion of their applications.
Maybe, but silicon is also damn good because of the adherence and dielectric nature of its oxide. Not to mention that several of the so-called superior semiconductors, even if you can get them in large quantities, are more difficult than silicon to crystallize without many defects. And silicon also conducts heat relatively well, meaning that it draws thermal energy away from hotspots within a chip better than some of the more expensive semiconductors.
Not disputing the larger point about rare metals. Just asking you to put some respect on the name of my boy Si.
Also correct is that the price of a semiconductor material in the form as it enters a semiconductor plant depends not only on the abundance of the raw material but also on how easy it can be purified and grown into crystals with very few defects.
The latter 2 operations are indeed much easier for silicon than for compound semiconductors.
Nevertheless, the choice of materials for any semiconductor device results from compromises between a very large number of properties and while silicon is good at some, it is worse at other properties, e.g. energy bandgap, breakdown electric field, velocity limits of charge carriers, electron mobility, leakage currents and others.
So there are applications for which silicon may be the best choice, even if the cost of the materials is ignored.
However, in more and more applications silicon continues to be used only because of its lower cost.
It is likely that the use of silicon for the active part of the semiconductor devices will continue to decrease and this trend will accelerate.
For example, to make faster CPUs, there are not a lot of remaining possible improvements.
Three-dimensional silicon devices are a possibility for increasing the multi-thread performance, but only if it would become possible to circulate some liquid coolant through channels in the device, to eliminate the heat.
Otherwise, the only chance is to use some other material than silicon for the active regions of the device.
Even if the active semiconductor devices would be made from other materials, it is likely that silicon crystals will continue to be used as substrates long after that, due to the 2 advantages that you have mentioned, i.e. very few crystal defects and high thermal conductivity.
For the record, I have worked for many years in a plant where silicon devices were made and I have handled thousands of silicon wafers, breaking just a few ;-( .
Therefore, I actually have a lot of respect for your boy Si !
Sand is used because of the high surface area so lower amount of heat needed to be applied, but sand is just ultimately worn down rock. Quartz for example is just pure oxidized silicon in a non-uniform crystal structure. And there's a lot of quartz. Don't like quartz? It's also in the even more common feldspar too. We as a species will run out of water before running out of silicon.
There’s a cool photo on Wikipedia of somebody just growing a crystal: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Silicon_grown_by_C...
There’s a bit of waste, but AFAIK it’s not too bad compared to other things.
Raw resources don't matter that much. We have a lot of oil in the ground for example, what matters is how much human labor and energy it takes to extract the oil. Given enough energy and labor you can just recycle materials endlessly, you can take the CO2 in the atmosphere and turn it back into oil. The same applies to semiconductors. As others have said the earth is 10% silicon, but the real question is, how much does it cost (energy and labor) to extract it?