With the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, technology has developed by leaps and bounds, changing many things around us. Semiconductor technology, in particular, gives “mechanics” the ability to detect, store and judge information and contributed greatly to creating a ubiquitous society by enabling simpler, but more informative products. In terms of function alone, semiconductors are one of mankind’s greatest inventions, but there is no denying that there are negative effects behind the colorful functions. For example, workers are exposed to more than 151 kinds of chemicals an hour in the semiconductor-making process.
Hence, The Argus covers the benevolent sides and dangers looming over semiconductor technology and related industries in depth, highlighting the ambivalence of this radical technology.
Basic Principles of all Semiconductors: Logic
Aside from human language, mechanical devices communicate with each other by using binary codes. Binary code, a system of numbers using only 0’s and 1’s, is the foundation of a computational method called “Logic” (a.k.a. Boolean Logic). Binary inputs of 1’s and 0’s go through what are called “logic gates” and produce a single binary result. An information device with semiconductor technology can hold in a tiny chip a great amount of logic circuits that are given pre-programmed rules that determine the flow of electrons which signal the 1’s and 0’s or, in other words, the workings of the device.
The security of nation and human beings is a common concern in a human society which is always exposed to the danger of the disaster. In this regard, semiconductors detect the situation on behalf of all the humans, and thus, work as the protector of mankind. The most important characteristic of semiconductors is that they can “manually process information and comprehensively judge to prevent unexpected accidents,” which is the principle of utilizing system semiconductor characteristics among two types of (system, memory) semiconductors. A system semiconductor is a semiconductor that is responsible for the brain part that computes signals (data) that are detected from outside and generates signals that give orders to external devices by referring to data values that are stored. The information processing capabilities of these system semiconductors are being used to detect and prevent accidents by sensitively detecting the risks in the environment surrounding changing human beings.
One clear example of a system semiconductor as a protecting applicant is the use of the radar system, and also as a national defense — radar is a wireless device that examines electromagnetic waves and detects reflected objects around it and was first developed by the British for defense purposes in World War II. At that time, the British were able to protect the nation and win the war by detecting German aircraft through radar and crushing the German with surprise attacks. Since 1946, after World War II ended, system semiconductors function to inform users of the location of targets by calculating detailed information such as distance, direction and altitude from surrounding objects through received electrical signals.
In addition to defense purposes, it is also helping to prevent frequent vehicle accidents. For instance, cars signal a warning bell when they are less than a certain distance from the car in front of them or automatically hit the brake when the car in front of them makes a sudden stop, preventing rear-end accidents. When the electromagnetic wave received by the radar is converted into an electrical signal and sent to the system semiconductor, the system semiconductor identifies the gap between the signals received and measures the distance from the surrounding objects. If the vehicle gets closer than a certain distance, the system semiconductor may command the sound function to alert the driver or stop the vehicle by directly controlling the braking system.
Park Sang-won, a professor of HUFS electrical engineering said, “The radar measures more accurately than the human eye, so even in foggy or rainy days, radar semiconductors can detect and make a comprehensive judgment. Regarding this, the autonomous driving cars being developed recently will help prevent safety accidents by making accurate decisions through more diverse information, especially through autonomous driving sensors and more algorithms.”
“History of Semiconductor,” a research paper written by Lidia Łukasiak and Andrzej Jakubowski, says “While Gutenberg’s printing press is the first invention that allowed us to convey a lot of information to humanity, the amount of information the world produces doubles every year, and information we take for granted today would not have been possible without the semiconductor.” Likewise, in the 21st century information society, small and light semiconductors are an innovative medium that can record and share more knowledge than paper, which play a major role in accumulating much knowledge.
The society we live in produces 25.5 trillion bytes of data a day and it is none other than memory semiconductors that have made this huge amount of data storable. Memory semiconductors are chips that are used to store information, and they serve to store data values sent from system semiconductors through binary logic. The reason why we can back up our old data is because memory chips store them permanently.
The advantages of these memory chips are well represented by the “USB flash drive.” Weighing less than 30g and thinner than human hair, flash drives are easy-to-carry and that contributed greatly to information society by storing large amounts of photos, videos, and documents and facilitating data movement between different devices. The previous storage device, the floppy disc, was heavy and storing data using magnetic fields made it very sensitive and easily damaged, making it impossible to carry around. However, the memory chip developed by IBM in 2000 was a small chip instead of a CD-like disc, which was not only easy to store more data in, but also easy to carry.
Along with the invention, professor Park responded, “Old floppy discs do not operate on electricity like a semiconductor USB memory, but they use a mechanical motor, so they are much slower to store and have less space to store data. Also, while carrying discs they can be scratched or broken if dropped. Therefore, with USB memory, flash memory performs far better in size, portability, speed and all aspects of storage.”
Obviously, from using smartphones to using credit cards, semiconductors made everything simple and convenient. Moreover based on big data, semiconductors are going beyond the limits of existing machines, transforming into Artificial Intelligence (AI), which is well expected to contribute to human well-being.
Today, semiconductor technology is everywhere, but apparently seen in transportation cards or credit cards that are taken at the gate while riding public transportation to and from school. The “USIM chip” embedded in transportation and credit cards stands for “Universal Subscriber Identification Module,” which includes data from subscribers of telecommunication companies, on semiconductor Integrated Circuit (IC) chip. The IC chip contains memory chips, which store card-specific information, where the memory chip includes its own financial data. If the card is then placed on the reader, the card information can be read and paid through the *RFID function. These days, it is simple to use via smart phones, which can be used as credit cards or transportation cards if it is turned into a financial attraction and equipped with Near Field Communication (NFC), a type of RFID.
Even in AI, semiconductors are indispensable, especially system semiconductors which are responsible for the brain part of machines. A representative example is System on Chip (SoC), which is currently being developed by a semiconductor manufacturer. Just as each brain region governs the body, SoC is a technology-intensive semiconductor that makes various functional semiconductors into a single chip, serving as a brain that processes the computation and storage process together. Thus, the more functions the SoC contains, the more high-performance and multifunctional the device can become.
Along with the usage of SoC in AI, Dr. Wonyoung Cha, the research director of ASPECT Future Technology Management Institute said, “SoC which imitates the neural network of human neurons and synapses, can rapidly process various unstructured data such as image processing and voice recognition within a device.”
Particularly inside SoC, the Neural Processing Unit (NPU) is responsible for the function of AI that is self-judged and recommended. Like the saying “Word to the wise,” the NPU has a deep-running function that can be associated in parallel with learning one thing to another. For example, programming grammar rules in “Papago,” a translation program, uses NPU’s function to translate sentences according to the grammatical framework.
In regard to the technology, professor Park said, “NPU is a semiconductor that quickens calculation speed by putting software programs that act as a human neural network into circuits inside a chip. It is the principle of faster computation because software is now has a multiplier which has a double function, boosting the process of storing data.”
* Also known as, Radio Frequency Identification, it is recognition technology that uses IC chips and frequencies to identify IDs and manage information.
Semiconductors go through tens of thousands of processes combined into about six core processes until they are in our hands, and according to the “International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health,” there is a risk of 8.3 tons of chemicals being used by a semiconductor company each year.
“Health care guidelines for semiconductor workers,” published by the Korea Occupational Safety and Health Agency (KOSHA) in 2012, points out that semiconductors are manufactured through wafer processing and arranging procedures that consist of a variety of processes, with health hazards caused by various chemicals presented in each and every process. Semiconductors commonly go through 18 stages of processes, which use various chemicals and facilities for each process, causing chemical leakage when the semiconductor manufacturing process or maintenance of the process is neglected, posing a great danger to workers. Chemicals presented cause symptoms, such as mucous membranes and skin irritation, headaches, nausea and dizziness, and prolonged radiation exposure can lead to various cancers, including leukemia.
As such, the leakage of chemicals used during the semiconductor manufacturing process is a potential danger. For example, a hydrofluoric acid leak at a semiconductor company located in the city of Hwaseong in Suwon, killed one person and injured four others in January 2013. On the evening of the accident, five employees from a company who had gone to repair the malfunctioning hydrofluoric acid reservoir device, gradually felt minor neck and chest pain, but one later died the next day after expressing severe pain.
In particular, hydrofluoric acid, a chemical essential in every process, is a deadly substance. When it is inhaled, it causes inflammation, decreases stamina, and even results in cancer due to its well-mixed properties. In addition to hydrofluoric acid, there are at least, 40 other types of irritant-risk substances found to be used in the semiconductor manufacturing process, but the process has not been properly identified to maintain confidential corporate security, and there have been persistent concerns about workers’ health and criticisms over the obscurity.
It is said that the semiconductor industry is the most promising industry, but it is pointed out that it is hovering around the limits of technological sophistication. “Moore’s Law” established by Gordon Moore, the president of Intel in 1975, stated that semiconductor integrated circuits double in performance every 24 months. So far, the semiconductor ecosystem has followed Moore’s Law. However, experts later predict that the speed of power generation will drop sharply starting 2020 due to limitations in the semiconductor process.
Professor Park Sang-won said, “Moore’s law is that capacity doubles every 24 months and performance doubles. In theory, however, components belonging to the electronic circuitry of semiconductors cannot be smaller than atoms. In addition, the closer it gets to the size of an atom, the more interference the radio waves cause between the waves and the less functioning the device is. So, if the thickness of the line is thicker than an atom, we continue to take measures, but there is an ultimate limit.”
The size of the atoms in silicon that currently form semiconductors is one nanometer, and it is impossible to create a smaller channel size within a transistor below that. According to data released by Intel in 2017, the current technology level is 7 nanometers in size, and is currently produced by Samsung and TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Company). In July this year, Samsung and TSMC announced that they will reduce the size of the channel to 5 nanometers and plan to reduce it to 3 nanometers soon. In the short run, although it costs more, it doesn’t make any function better, and in the long run, the device will be closer to a nanometer, the size of a silicon atom, forcing it to reach the limits of semiconductors. Another option is using particles that are smaller than those of silicon. Developers wanted to use ‘germanium’ which is in the same elemental class, but it is not a clear alternative because it is a rare mineral compared to silicon and breaks easily during the semiconductor process.
Drawing attention as a key industry of the future, semiconductors have become a threatening diplomatic weapon between companies and between countries. The ratio of investment in the global semiconductor market from 2019 to 2023 is assumed to rise by $241.39 billion compared to 2018, and there is a growing number of countries supporting the semiconductor industry and companies jumping in with the market forecasted to be very dense. However, semiconductors are an industry in which every expert, resource and technology must be in the right place at the right time during the whole manufacturing. Thus, semiconductor companies may take advantage of process technology patent to make it difficult on other companies by initiating lawsuit, and countries may use it as a diplomatic weapon by restricting the export of resources needed to produce semiconductors.
Among company’s patent lawsuits, the longest remaining war in the semiconductor industry can be cited as the “DRAM patent war.” In early 2000, Rambus (RMBS), a U.S. computer company, developed an invention that reduced volume by reducing the number of terminals for semiconductor IC chips called Rambus DRAM. Later, Rambus filed a patent infringement suit against Japanese electronics “Hitachi” for allegedly stealing its DRAMs without permission, which led to the start of lawsuits against DRAM companies around the world, demanding royalties all over. Samsung settled the deal with Rambus, but U.S. electronics giant Micron and South Korean electronics giant, SK Hynix, appealed, claiming Rambus had committed a patent-hiding offence. After 11 long years of lawsuit, the Supreme Court combined the two cases, and finally enabled Hynix to win the case.
Furthermore, when semiconductor materials are concentrated in a certain country, a structure that monopolizes the resource market appears. Therefore, when conflicts between countries errupt, limiting these resources could become a diplomatic weapon. Namely, Japan almost exclusively produces hydrofluoric acid for high purity semiconductors and when relations between South Korea and Japan soured, the Japanese government suspended imports, leading to brief production disruptions in the semiconductor industry in Korea.
From transportation cards used to go to school to computers checked before going to bed, semiconductors today are a must for our daily routine. Semiconductors are such a thankful existence that keep us safe and give us convenience in our daily lives, but on the other hand, they also hurt workers’ health and are being used as weapons. Therefore, The Argus hopes that this article will give readers the opportunity to recognize the duality of semiconductors, which are valuable to the information society but can be harmful.
By Mun Ji-hyun Staff Reporter of Theory & Critique Section