From The Editor | May 20, 2024

Innovating Semiconductors, MMICs, And RFICs

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By John Oncea, Editor

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Recent innovations in MMICs and RFICs include advanced thermal transistors, education initiatives, GaN MMICs, and AI-driven design tools, enhancing performance and integration.

No pithy intro, let’s just dig into some recent semiconductor innovations, focusing on MMICs (Monolithic Microwave Integrated Circuits) and RFICs (Radio Frequency Integrated Circuits). But, before we do, let’s take a quick look at some of the innovations from last year.

First up, a groundbreaking achievement emerged from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) with the introduction of a revolutionary thermal transistor, as reported by McKinsey Electronics. This solid-state device utilizes an electric field to control the movement of heat in semiconductor devices precisely.

The transistor’s field effect and its fully solid-state composition showcase high performance and compatibility with semiconductor manufacturing processes. It achieved a record-breaking switching speed exceeding one megahertz and offers remarkable tunability in thermal conductance, surpassing previous limitations in thermal conductivity tuning. This innovation marks a significant leap in chip manufacturing and performance and holds promise for advancing our understanding of heat management in living cells at the molecular level.

Next up, universities and semiconductor education. The U.S., which currently manufactures only 12% of global chips, is witnessing a surge in job openings. To meet this demand, universities are enhancing their semiconductor-focused programs.

As the global semiconductor industry faces a shortage of young engineers, companies like Intel are acknowledging the challenge of retaining electrical engineering students. Intel positions itself as an educational catalyst, expanding fabs and allocating funds to community colleges. Other industry giants like Samsung and Silicon Labs are also investing in community colleges. Midwest universities, such as Purdue and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, are actively working to produce skilled engineers and technicians in the semiconductor field.

Last but not least, there’s the ENIGMA project for high-frequency performance. HRL Laboratories is developing the Efficient GaN Integrated G-band Monolithic Arrays (ENIGMA) project funded by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA).

ENIGMA aims to address the gap in technology between compound semiconductor MMICs and silicon RFICs. By leveraging traditional silicon semiconductor fabrication techniques, ENIGMA seeks to achieve unprecedented high-frequency performance using Gallium Nitride (GaN) MMICs.

These innovations demonstrate the ongoing progress in semiconductor technology, with researchers and industry players pushing boundaries to enhance performance, efficiency, and reliability.

More Recent Innovations

Semiconductors, MMICs, and RFICs are improving in many ways, including size, weight, and power (SWaP). RFICs and MMICs enable more compact, lightweight, and power-efficient systems by integrating functions like amplifiers, mixers, and switches onto single chips.

RFICs and MMICs operating at higher frequencies like millimeter-wave (mmWave) bands above 90GHz enable new applications like high data rate communications and radar. Devices are being developed with wider bandwidths from 0.1-20GHz and beyond.

While traditional materials like gallium arsenide (GaAs) are still used, new semiconductor materials and processes are emerging, such as gallium nitride (GaN), indium phosphide (InP), and silicon-germanium (SiGe) bipolar/BiCMOS. These enable higher power, frequencies, and integration levels.

There is significant development of RFICs for beamforming applications in 5G and radar, integrating functions like phase shifters and low noise amplifiers into compact chips. This enables advanced phased array antennas.

Another trend is packing more functionality into highly integrated MMICs, such as complete transmit/receive chips for different frequency bands. However, this increases design complexity and thermal management challenges.

New software tools leveraging techniques like machine learning are automating and accelerating the design, optimization, and modeling of MMIC filters and other components, allowing for faster development of MMICs tailored to specific system requirements. The same techniques are being applied to RFIC components, too.

Finally, an area of intense R&D is quantum computing, which requires new types of semiconductors that can operate at extremely low temperatures.

In summary, key advancements span new semiconductor materials, increased integration, scaling through new architectures, emerging AI/5G/autonomous driving applications, and the pursuit of quantum computing capabilities.