ELYRIA, Ohio — News of Intel’s major new computer-chip factory in Central Ohio, the shortage of semiconductor chips and the need to return microelectronics manufacturing to the U.S. have all made headlines. But how exactly are computer chips and microelectronics made?
At Lorain County Community College’s Micro Electromechanical Systems School, students are learning just that. The program, started in 2013, shows future workers how to work in clean labs, build complex circuits on thin silicone discs and how to solder those components into circuit boards and electronics.
Intel’s exact plans aren’t public, and the company is likely to build using the most advanced technology out there. But taking a peek at LCCC’s clean labs can gives us a better understanding of what will happen behind Intel’s doors.
With tours from LCCC’s Johnny Vanderford and Matt Apanius, and information from the Semiconductor Industry Association, here’s what the process may look like.
Read more: Long before Intel’s Ohio announcement, Lorain County Community College started teaching computer chip manufacturing
Inside Lorain County Community College’s clean lab, Assistant Professor Johnny Vanderford wears a lab coat, hairnet, gloves and a mask.
Nothing happens in a clean lab before the workers properly suit up for the day. Humans are dirty creatures, Vanderford said. And the dust, oils or hair that come off them can ruin a computer chip.
In LCCC’s clean lab, which Vanderford said is 10 times cleaner than a hospital’s operating room, students can’t enter without a lab coat, a hairnet, booties, gloves and a mask. Items like phones are wiped down and tape on the floor takes dust off shoes. Intel’s facilities, though, could be anywhere from a hundred to a thousand times cleaner than an operating room.
Air-handling systems take in air and pump it out cleaned. LCCC’s lab is basked in a murky yellow, because UV light can damage the components.
Expect Intel to be a much, much more heightened version of this process, Vanderford said. Intel will likely have workers in full bunny suits and may ask workers to use special mouthwashes and keep pairs of glasses only used in the lab. Perfumes and colognes can’t be used. It could be about a 50-step process to start work, Vanderford said.
A microscopic image shows a silicon wafer at Lorain County Community College's MEMS School.
Everything starts on thin silicon wafers. Raw materials like sand are taken to a foundry and turned into long cylinders called ingots. From there, they are cut into thin discs called wafers.
Sometimes ingots are made in-house. Other times, another company can make them and sell them to chip manufacturers.
This is something not done in LCCC’s labs, which starts with blank wafers and processes them from there.
A DC Sputtering System used to coat a silicon wafer with a layer of copper atoms.
Once there’s a blank wafer, manufacturers add thin copper films, layer by layer, to create complex circuits on tiny spaces. Much of this is done at the molecular level.
At LCCC, students use a DC sputtering system, which Vanderford describes as “billiards for atoms.”
The wafer is placed in a vacuum chamber under a copper target. Argon gas atoms shoot the target, and copper falls onto the wafer to cover it in a thin film.
In some cases other metals, like gold or aluminum, could be used.
Once the wafer is coated in metal, technicians use an ultra-violet exposure system and templates to remove specific patterns of copper from the wafer. The goal is to get a specific patterns, sometimes called photolithographic artwork, on the wafer that’s smaller than can be seen with human eyes. They’ll also use chemicals in liquid form to etch in some of the patterns.
Each pattern, contained in a square, will be repeated thousands of times on one wafer.
The process is done layer by layer, again and again, Vanderford explained. He said Intel would repeat this process up to 300 times to make a typical chip found in an i-7 processor, one of Intel’s most powerful chips used in central processing units in high-end computers.
Intel says on its website that its chips, although they look flat, can have as many as 30 layers of complex circuitry.
A wafer has been cut into squares by a diamond-edge circular blade.
Once the layers are placed and the intricate patterns are done, the wafer can be diced. At LCCC, they use a diamond-edge circular blade to divide the squares into individual pieces.
After they’re diced up, the semiconductors can be attached with epoxy into protective “skulls” called packages.
While the epoxy holds it in place, technicians use thin gold-wire, welded with the aid of a microscope and thermosonic wire bonder, to connect the chip’s electrical into its packaging.
After that, depending on what kind of semiconductor is being made, it can be soldered into computer chips or a circuit board. This process is often done by automated machines but is also done by hand under a microscope in LCCC’s lab and at many companies.
A component is soldered onto a circuit board.
At most FABs, lingo used in the chip industry for a fabrication facility, most of this work is done using automation and A.I. Robotic arms, and specialized machines do many of the steps LCCC’s students learn to do by hand.
According to the Semiconductor industry Association, semiconductors can go through thousands of steps to go from silicon wafer to a finished product.
LCCC shows students both the automated and slower ways to make semiconductors, because it’s important for them to understand the process and what the machines they’ll run in the future are doing, Vanderford said. It’s also important for LCCC students to learn to program machines and design circuit boards.
Even outside the Fab walls, there’s a lot that goes into making semiconductors.
Along with the large amounts of sand needed to make wafers, Intel will likely use extensive amounts of water and electricity.
Intel’s 700-acre campus in Ocotillo, Arizona, for example, consumed more than 800 million gallons of water and used more than 509 million kilowatt hours of electricity just in the last three months of 2021.
The site picked for an Intel factory in Central Ohio is more than 3,000 acres.
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