Green Powered Semiconductor Fabs, Neon That No One Cares For And Other Signs Of India's 'Hanuman Complex'

by Arun Mampazhy - May 10, 2022 12:20 PM +05:30 IST
Green Powered Semiconductor Fabs, Neon That No One Cares For And Other Signs Of India's 'Hanuman Complex'SemiconIndia Conference 2022 (Representative Image)
  • Here are a few points to ponder that stood out from the "Where No Technology Has Gone Before" session at the SemiconIndia 2022 conference.

I had the good fortune of attending the three-day SemiconIndia 2022 event in Bengaluru on 29, 30 April and 1 May. Interestingly, though I was there at the venue most of the time, I missed more sessions than attended as quite often I would get pulled into discussions - but then, the recordings are available here - Day1, Day2 and Day3.

For quick summaries, here are the official press releases of Day1, Day2, and Day3. Note that in these press releases, you may not find the ISMC (Next Orbit Ventures with Tower Semiconductor as Technology Partner) story that has now gone viral. The MoU was signed by ISMC with the Karnataka government to set up the fab in Mysuru, subject to central government approval. It, however, happened on the concluding day of the session, seemingly with the blessings of the people who may matter.

One session that I did not want to miss was in the evening of Day2 (starts around the 7hr 17 min mark of Day2 recording - click here to take you to the starting point). Part of the reason was that three out of the four panellists who attended in person, were known to me - with varying degrees of familiarity and length of having known each other. Three of the panellists including the one who joined virtually also happened to be alumni of IIT Madras, where I did my Bachelor of Technology (BTech).

I am not here to write a summary of that session titled "Where No Technology Has Gone Before", much less the whole conference, but just to ponder a few points that stood out. For those who know about the field, the moderator had this interesting plot, which set the base for the discussion with a single picture.

Green Powered Semiconductor Fabs, Neon That No One Cares For And Other Signs Of India's 'Hanuman Complex'

What struck me more was that at the two extremes of the panel sat two experts representing leading "Wafer Fab Equipment" (WFE) manufacturers - Rangesh Raghavan from Lam Research and Suraj Rengarajan from Applied Materials - and both companies already have a strong presence in India (Moderator summarises that around 7:35:18 of the video) - perhaps everything but the factories making the equipment in big numbers and my last week's article was a thought-starter for that as well.

Sri Samavedam, as I expected, explained how Moore's Law will continue, especially with 3D stacking, just that the performance improvement that you get from node to node is slowing down and cost of technology is going up. On a semi-light note, I wonder if, at some point, the transistor density will be measured in mega-transistor per millimetre cubed (measured up to a certain height) as opposed to mega-transistor per millimetre squared (MTr/mm²), but that is a topic for another day perhaps.

Suraj Rengarajan (around 7:36:25 of the video) gives a good "split" of where to focus - "70 per cent on the Moore's Law axis because that is what gets into the game, 20 per cent on the vertical axis and 10 per cent on the z-axis". Rangesh Raghavan (around 7:41:30) brings the point of how "we (Indians) understand our need more than anyone else and there will be opportunity for customisation", for example, in automotive-related chips where many road conditions are perhaps unique to India.

Surya Bhattacharya, in the context of which process nodes may be good for India for a new commercial Silicon fab, hinted that a node like 65-nm is not a "static node" - development of new variants continue to happen for such process nodes, and once the base is established the foundry can very well customise it based on needs.

Then there were at least two interesting points brought up by the moderator Anshuman Tripathi, who, by the way, was attempting again and again to make the debate as energetic as an Arnab Goswami led debate and I will leave it to the viewers to decide on how far he succeeded.

Jokes aside, a little after the 7:50:00 mark, the discussion came to the topic of the "ecosystem" that is needed to support fabs, and the key takeaway is that India already has strength in various aspects of what is needed for fabs, through the presence of other industries and supply chains for those.

For example, Anshuman Tripathi brought up the example of neon gas supply for the semiconductor industry - 70 per cent is from Ukraine, which has now become a challenge and how India has the largest Air Separator Units (ASU) in the world, where neon is a by-product but is unfortunately just released back to the atmosphere.

Out of curiosity, I searched and found this interesting document where there is mention of "five of the world's largest air separation units (ASUs)" being built as part of the Jamnagar refining complex in Gujarat. One may recall news from May 2021 that Reliance becomes India's largest producer of medical-grade liquid oxygen from single location.

By the way, where is neon used in fabs? They are used as part of the light sources needed for photolithography - the 248nm (KrF) and the 193nm (ArF) steppers, for example. Quoting from this 2016 journal:

Excimer lasers use gases like krypton fluoride (KrF) and argon fluoride (ArF) to generate light, and those gases are regularly changed out during use. However, a charge of excimer laser gas is actually about 98 percent neon, making this carrier gas essential to the laser's operation.

From around 7:54:00, Anshuman Tripathi talks about how there should be no doubt about whether India will be able to provide raw materials, water, power and so on - in fact, he says, "We can provide not only power, we can provide green power. Semiconductor fabrication industry today is strongly in a transition towards green and I think the fact that India can provide green power is a strong signal to the level of opportunity we provide - we have to (just) put together all of that."


Perhaps India suffers from a bit of "Hanuman Complex" (I take the liberty of taking that term from this paper) and needs to be reminded of its strengths every now and then. As the paper says:

In the Indian story of Hanuman, there is not only reference to a psychological problem but also there is a way out to a solution in terms of psychotherapy by Jambavan

While I hope to write more along these lines in the coming weeks or months, for now, I end this article with one of my favourite Sanskrit shlokas:

अमंत्रमक्षरं नास्ति नास्ति मूलमनौषधम्‌।

अयोग्यः पुरुषो नास्ति योजकस्तत्र दुर्लभः॥

amaṃtramakṣaraṃ nāsti nāsti mūlamanauṣadham‌।

ayogyaḥ puruṣo nāsti yojakastatra durlabhaḥ॥

My (perhaps imperfect) interpretation - "There is no letter which is not a Mantra, there is no root which is not a medicine, there is no person who is incapable, the one who can put them all together is rare."

Also Read: India's First Semiconductor Chip Manufacturing Plant In Mysuru. How Much Water Will It Actually Need? An Estimate

Arun Mampazhy has a BTech from IITM and MS from University of Maryland in semiconductor fabrication and over a decade of industry experience. His dreams of seeing a commercial fab takeoff in India has changed from black and white to colour over two decades. He can be reached via email nanoarun(at)gmail(dot)com or @nano_arun on twitter. Views expressed are personal.

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