Your mind may not immediately jump to semiconductors when you think about national security, but “a steady source of uninterrupted, trusted chips is necessary for the security of the nation – supporting the readiness of the U.S. military and protecting critical infrastructure like the electric grid,” writes Zachary A. Collier, Ph.D., an assistant professor of management at Radford University and a visiting scholar at the Center for Hardware and Embedded Systems Security and Trust (CHEST) in a new commentary for RealClearPolitics.
Pointing out that “[t]hese tiny chips are the ‘brains’ enabling all the computational capabilities and data storage that we take for granted today,” and are powering “virtually every sector of the economy,” Collier argues that the geopolitics of the chip manufacturing supply chain “leaves the U.S. in a precarious position, dependent upon foreign sources of supply such as South Korea and Taiwan,” and provides “compelling reasons to consider strengthening the supply of semiconductor production at home.”
Indeed, as followers of ARPN well-know, and as the U.S. Commerce Department pointed out last year, there are many access points for supply chain vulnerabilities along the way because the typical semiconductor production process spans a multitude of countries and products, crossing international borders up to 70 times, which is why the Biden Administration dedicated an entire chapter to the supply chains of semiconductors in its 100 Day Supply Chain Report.
Recent news of tech firms ripping apart new washing machines to harvest their computer parts in a bid to beat the global microchip shortage underscore the urgency of the situation, and Collier rightly argues that “onshoring semiconductor fabrication capabilities and providing market incentives” in this field could go far in “strengthening national security and promoting economic prosperity.”
However, the issue is much bigger than semiconductor fabrication, because, as ARPN has long pointed out, the term “supply chain” begins with “supply.” The supply of the “secret sauce” for semiconductors is where the issue starts.
As ARPN’s Daniel McGroarty outlined for The Economic Standard in 2020 for the next-gen 5-nanometer (5 nm) semiconductor chips:
“What gives 5nm its secret sauce? Like gastronomes blending obscure spices, 5nm’s designers looking to push the limits of Moore’s Law have turned to a broader swath of the Periodic Table of Elements to expand their computing palate. Starting with the familiar silicon substrate ‘wafer,’ 5nm layers in exotic elements like silicon germanium for its super-lattice, adding dielectric hafnium-dioxide and gallium arsenide laced with indium – with a side-look at gallium antimonide as a potential substitute.
And that’s where things get difficult, at least if we’re rooting for the U.S. to become the world’s epicenter of 5-nanometer chip production: The U.S. produces precisely zero of three of these elements — indium and gallium and arsenic – leaving us 100% import-dependent, while we’re 84% import-dependent for antimony, and more than 50% for germanium. Data for hafnium, among the rarest of the elements, is notoriously harder to come by, with production guesstimated at a scant 70 tons per year.”
As McGroarty points out, China is the lead global supplier for all six materials, but “it doesn’t have to be that way: The U.S. has ‘known resources’ of all six, and already includes them on the U.S. Government Critical Minerals List.”
That is not to say that focusing on expanding manufacturing capabilities for semiconductors is not important — it absolutely is — but any effort to truly secure their supply chain must begin at the beginning: with the responsible sourcing of the metals and minerals underpinning this crucial 21st Century technology.