The CHIPS and Science Act of 2022 is injecting billions of dollars into the United States’ domestic semiconductor chip manufacturing industry in a move that aims to reposition the country as a leader in this critical and fast-growing area.
According to Dr. Mark Rosker, director of the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s Microsystems Technology Office, the legislation is “really focused on reestablishing the United States as a leader in microelectronics.”
“We not only want to establish that position, we want to maintain that position in the long run, so we have to be looking down the road further and making sure that we are not going to be disrupted,” he said, addressing an audience at the ExecutiveBiz 2023 Microelectronics Forum.
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Although the CHIPS Act is undoubtedly an important piece of legislation and a much-needed investment in the microelectronics industry, Dr. Rosker suggested the name of the act may be somewhat misleading as the sector approaches revolutionary change.
“When we called it the CHIPS Act, it was a natural thing to do because electronics equals chips. That’s about to end. It’s the end of something… that we think of a little bit differently. And that thing is called the era of monolithic integration,” he shared.
Dr. Rosker said the end of monolithic integration is near for two main reasons, the first of which has everything to do with physics and the area on a transistor.
“If you look at the area of a transistor, it has peaked. We have already reached a point where you can’t fit more transistors on a two dimensional die. So we can make the gates smaller… but that’s not going to be sufficient if what you’re interested in is making more and more complex, more highly integrated — cramming more components on integrated circuits,” Dr. Rosker warned.
The second catalyst for the end of monolithic integration centers around economics. Dr. Rosker expressed concern with the country’s ability to keep up with the rising costs associated with chip manufacturing fabrication plants, or fabs.
“As we make fabs smaller and smaller, the cost of a fab is going up exponentially, reaching the point where it costs $20 billion or $30 billion. How long can we sustain that?” he posed. “We’ve reached a point where it’s no longer sustainable for companies… for even government to continue down this path. So the era of monolithic integration, the thing that we have gotten used to our entire lives, is coming to an end.”
The new manufacturing paradigm that will take its place, Dr. Rosker predicted, doesn’t have just one descriptor or title quite yet, but it is already making waves in the industry.
“There are a lot of different words that people are using — ‘disaggregation,’ or ‘polylithic’ is another word I’ve heard used, or ‘chiplet-based.’ All of these are about how do you get functionality that is at least as good or better from assembled systems as opposed to building one large system together, which is fundamentally what we have gotten used to,” he explained. “So the next revolution is moving towards this sort of assembled system.”
Dr. Rosker posited that experts are already, to a degree, putting this new paradigm into practice, just not at the magnitude of change he expects to see as innovation and progress continue. This transitional phase relies on “having some interposer and having chiplets talk to each other,” but that’s not quite enough, Dr. Rosker said.
“What I’m talking about is a generation beyond that. It’s three dimensional — truly three dimensional, where signals move from one layer to another in complex ways that are extremely hard to design in advance and extremely hard to test. And where it is heterogeneous. And by heterogeneous, I don’t just mean different flavors of silicon. I mean different materials, different functionalities… structures that are complex,” he revealed.
Hear Dr. Rosker and other microelectronics experts speak at DARPA’s Electronics Resurgence Initiative 2.0 Summit in Seattle, Washington from Aug. 22-24. Click here for more information.