The last industrial revolution was driven by coal from South Wales, and it might be time for the next big push from Wales in the form of the compound semiconductor.
Back in 1982 a semiconductor fabrication facility was built and opened near Newport in South Wales. The 8,900m2 single story
building was originally a microprocessor facility for Inmos, but it soon changed hands passing from Thorn EMI then to STMicroelectronics, who used it to produce SRAM and other products.
International Rectifier then acquired the site in 2005 and used it as a R&D and manufacturing centre until Infineon bought the facility, and the company, in 2015.
The original development had promised thousands of new highly skilled jobs and placements for apprentices but over the years failed to deliver. Today, however, the site is home to Newport Wafer Fab and this facility is at the heart of what is being described by local politicians, academics and businessmen as the world’s first compound semiconductor cluster, or CS Connected.
CS Connected can be described as an umbrella organisation that represents organisations that are associated with research and development, innovation and manufacturing of compound semiconductor related technologies as well as those companies involved in the extended supply chain.
Almost a year since the decision to support this initiative was agreed Dr Drew Nelson, CEO of IQE, an established leader in the development and manufacture of advanced semiconductor wafer products, believes that the efforts of business, policy makers and academics are bearing fruit and helping to turn this part of South Wales into a world leader in the development and application of compound semiconductors.
“IQE has been at the forefront of this industry for a quarter of a century,” says Nelson. ”The wafer products we produce are used by companies around the world to produce the chips they need to support a wide range of high tech applications including wireless, photonics, infrared, power and solar.”
“The UK and Wales, in particular, already have a wealth of industrial and academic expertise in advanced semiconductor technologies that encompasses companies like IQE, SPTS and Newport Wafer Fab. But we also have a strong research and development ecosystem. CS Connected is about bringing them closer together.Speaking at an event organised and held earlier this year in central London to talk about developments in the compound semiconductor space in South Wales, Nelson said that compound semiconductors were, “Helping to define new technologies and that Wales was well positioned to play a leading role in this high tech industry sector.
Those who see compound semiconductors as crucial in enabling and supporting future generation technologies, believe that this rapidly emerging cluster in South Wales could place the region at the forefront of the next industrial revolution. As a consequence CS Connected, which has been driven in part by IQE and Cardiff University, has not only the backing of both the Welsh Government and the UK Government through Innovate UK but also includes a growing number of businesses such as SPTS and Microsemi.
Other key bodies in the development of the hub include the Institute for Compound Semiconductors, the ESPRC Compound Semiconductor Hub and the Compound Semiconductor Centre as well as the Compound Semiconductor Applications Catapult.
The region is aiming to become Europe’s first major cluster for firms developing compound semiconductors and is looking to attract private investment of almost £400million, in turn creating 2000 skilled jobs in the process.
At the end of last year IQE, the Welsh and UK governments, ratified the development of the Compound Semiconductor Foundry which will provide crucial support in the development of the CS Connected cluster.
So just what are compound semiconductors? Well, they are crucial to many of the devices that we take for granted today but which are having a profound impact on the way in which people live.
Whether in smartphones or in satellites, compound semiconductors are set to play an increasingly important role especially in the kind of technologies that are set to dominate the landscape in coming years, whether that’s robotics, electric vehicles, wearable technology or the infrastructure to support 5G cellular networks.
Compound semiconductors will have a crucial role to play because not only can they process things faster than silicon, but they are more versatile and sensitive.
Working exactly like silicon chips, they are able to offer much higher levels of performance – being up to 100 times faster – hence their importance when it comes to high speed communications.
They also offer much better power efficiency and a wide range of optical properties for emitting and receiving light.
They can certainly be described as a revolutionising technology.