Why Silicon Valley Cares About Silicon Again

Chip shortage gets all eyes in tech back on semiconductors

3 min read
A Burr Brown INA110KU integrated circuit microchip and a Burr Brown UAF42AU integrated circuit microchip.

A Burr Brown INA110KU integrated circuit microchip, left, and a Burr Brown UAF42AU integrated circuit microchip, right, at CSI Electronic Manufacturing Services Ltd. in Witham, U.K.

Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Chips are sexy again, after years of hiding behind the scenes. That's what NBC's Bay Area journalist Scott Budman says. And tech historian Michael S. Malone agrees.

"There's a reason it's called Silicon Valley," says Malone, author of The Big Score: The Billion Dollar Story of Silicon Valley, and about a dozen other books about Silicon Valley's people and companies.

"Chips matter," he continued, "because everything flows from that. We get excited about new products and companies, but they all depend on chips getting built, and right now they aren't getting built. You can't get a Ford F150 [truck], the most popular vehicle in U.S., because they can't get the microprocessor for the engine computer."

Malone and Budman were speaking as part of the Computer History Museum'sCHM Live series of virtual events.

It was a chip crisis in the 1980s that helped put Silicon Valley on the map in the first place, Malone pointed out.

"The Japanese came rolling in with chips that were better than ours," he said. "I was at an event where a guy from H-P showed quality charts, Silicon Valley chips vs. Japanese chips, and [the Japanese chips] were so much better and cheaper than ours. That's when the battle with Japan put Silicon Valley on the map as a crucial part of the American economy"

But then times changed, thanks to the increasing importance of software. "The Valley had a fundamental shift between hardware and software, between the electrical engineers and the code writers," Malone said. The customers changed as well; Silicon Valley companies had been selling to other manufacturing companies. The new companies targeted consumers, a far different market.

"You sold on specs in the hardware era, you sell on manipulation in the software era," he said. In "the social networking era, the companies are thinking about how to enlist you in joining their cult. They use tricks from casinos and everywhere else. They convince us to design our own products. After all, what is Facebook but a set of tools to make us into workers?"

"As long as the money is here, the Valley will regenerate itself."

As the software and apps piled up, the chips disappeared, hidden away. "The last time we thought about chips was with the 'Intel Inside' marketing campaign," he said.

But that has suddenly changed.

Now, Malone said, "it's a dangerous time. Eighty percent of the world's chips are made in Taiwan, and China has found the choke point of the world economy—those fabs. There's a scramble to build fabs outside Taiwan, but that will take two to three years. So it's a very worrisome time right now."

Looking beyond the current crisis, Malone considered the future of Silicon Valley, something people have questioned for decades, and are questioning again as remote work suggests that tech centers will become less critical for tech companies and their employees.

"I think the Valley will regenerate itself again," he predicted. "I've been to other tech enclaves, and they don't have the culture. This is the only place that [tech is] really in the culture. You go to the Century Theater, and they show ads for programmers during kids' movies. You go to a coffee shop, and at several tables around you are people with spreadsheets starting companies. You don't see that elsewhere. The venture capital firms are here, and as long as the money is here, the Valley will regenerate itself."

But, said Malone, it will likely spread a little, both out and up. "It [already] went over the hill a little towards Santa Cruz, but it can grow in all directions," he said. "It will stay around the Bay Area, but spread out more, become more virtualized. And it's going to grow tall, go up, get more urbanized. It has to."

Malone also took a shot at predicting the technology that will fuel Silicon Valley's next round of growth.

"I think it is going to be battery power," he said. "There are some battery companies out there that are doing some interesting things." He pointed out that Gordon Moore had always said that, at a certain point, battery power would be the limiting factor for future tech advances. Indeed, Moore had pointed out early on that batteries were not on the same trajectory as semiconductor circuits.

But, Malone indicated, perhaps the time has come for battery improvements to escalate. "It is possible that batteries can get on the freight train of Moore's Law," he said.

"I think the next great invention is just around the corner; we can't predict it, but it always shows up. You can feel it rising underground, but you can't see it yet."

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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.