Over the past few months you have probably heard of the “semiconductor crisis” that hit the electronics market of consumption and in particular slowed down automotive production: the term is used as a synonym for “chip crisis”, suggesting that chips and semiconductors are the same thing. But that’s not quite the case.
Semiconductors are the materials special that are used to make the basic components of the chips, ie transistors, diodes, resistors and all other fundamental components of electronics. Their fundamental characteristic is indicated by the name itself: they are by definition materials whose electrical conductivity (or conductivity) stands at values that are more or less halfway to that of good ones. conductors (such as copper) and that of materials insulators (such as rubber or quartz). Semiconductors can be doped, but without harmful consequences: it is a process that consists in the addition of impurities, such as a splash of atoms of other chemical elements, which serves to better control the variation of electrical conductivity of the material as a function of external parameters, such as temperature.
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Semiconductors, a story that begins at the end of the eighteenth century
We now associate them with electronics and computers, but semiconductors have been studied for centuries: the name they owe to Alessandro Volta, who baptized them as early as 1782. It was nevertheless Michael Faraday, in 1833, to be the first to document the phenomenon of electrical semiconductivity, with experiments on silver sulphide. Today the most used semiconductors in the electronics sector are the germanium, gallium arsenide and especially the silicon, which the Anglo-Saxons call Silicon. As Italians we often run into some careless translation of the term in silicone, which is instead an organic polymer with excellent insulating characteristics.
The semiconductor famine we are experiencing it does not concern semiconductors in the physico-chemical sense of the term, but the chips and the basic electronic components that are made of those materials: silicon is the second most abundant element after oxygen; germanium is slightly rarer, but there is still a lot of it. The problem is not to find or extract them, but to transform them in transistors, in wafers (as they are called) for printing circuits and finally in finished and finished microchips.
IS an expensive, complex, and above all long process: depending on the finished product, it can take years to bring a new production to full capacity. The tightening of trade relations between the United States and China, the pressure of the United States on Taiwan and South Korea (where most of the chips are produced today) and the consequent difficulties of Chinese manufacturers such as Smic, pushed towards isolation and altered a balance that was always based on semi-conductivity, but of geopolitical relations (yes, the pun is intentional).
The result is what is now clear to everyone: companies with lean and flexible supply chains have managed to grab as many chips as possible from Asian manufacturers (or semiconductors, if you prefer the improper metonymy), in particular from Taiwanese Tsmc. For everyone else, especially car manufacturers, crumbs remain and the impossibility of obtaining fundamental components in a short time, without yet seeing the end of an unprecedented crisis. A crisis that will undoubtedly mark a profound reorganization of global electronic production.