From The National Institute of Standards and Technology: “Why NIST Is Putting Its CHIPS Into U.S. Manufacturing”

From The National Institute of Standards and Technology

10.7.22

Ben P. Stein

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A NIST NanoFab user works with an optical microscope and computer software to inspect samples and take pictures.
Credit: B. Hayes/NIST.

Right after the pandemic hit, I bought a new vacuum cleaner. I wanted to step up my housecleaning skills since I knew I’d be home a lot more. I was able to buy mine right away, but friends who wanted new appliances weren’t so lucky. My relatives had to wait months for their new refrigerator to arrive. And it wasn’t just appliances. New cars were absent from dealership lots, while used cars commanded a premium. What do all these things have in common? Semiconductor chips.

The pandemic disrupted the global supply chain, and semiconductor chips were particularly vulnerable. The chip shortage delivered a wakeup call for our country to make our supply chain more resilient and increase domestic manufacturing of chips, which are omnipresent in modern life.

“To an astonishing degree, the products and services we encounter every day are powered by semiconductor chips,” says Mike Molnar, director of NIST’s Office of Advanced Manufacturing.

Think about your kitchen. Dishwashers have chips that sense how dirty your loads are and precisely time their cleaning cycles to reduce your energy and water bills. Some rice cookers use chips with “fuzzy logic” to judge how long to cook rice. Many toasters now have chips that make sure your bread is perfectly browned.

We commonly think of chips as the “brains” that crunch numbers, and that is certainly true for the CPUs in computers, but chips do all sorts of useful things. Memory chips store data. Digital cameras contain chips that detect light and turn it into an image. Modern TVs produce their colorful displays with arrays of light emitting diodes (LEDs) on chips. Phones send and receive Wi-Fi and cellular signals thanks to semiconductor chips inside them. Chips also abound on the exteriors of homes, inside everything from security cameras to solar panels.

The average car can have upward of 1,200 chips in it, and you can’t make a new car unless you have all of them. “Today’s cars are computers on wheels,” an auto mechanic said to me a few years ago, and his words were never more on point than during the height of the pandemic. In 2021, the chip shortage was estimated to have caused a loss of $110 billion in new vehicle sales worldwide.

The chips in today’s cars are a combination of low-tech, mature chips and high-tech, state-of-the-art processors (which you’ll especially find in electric vehicles and those that have autonomous driving capabilities).

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It takes a lot of chemistry to make a computer chip. Here a NanoFab user is working with acids while wearing the proper personal protective equipment (PPE). Credit: B. Hayes/NIST.

Whether mature or cutting-edge, chips typically need to go through a dizzying series of steps — and different suppliers — before they become finished products. And most of this work is currently done outside this country. The U.S., once a leader in chip manufacturing, currently only has about a 12% share in the market.

To reestablish our nation’s leadership in chip manufacturing, Congress recently passed, and President Joe Biden recently signed into law, the “CHIPS Act”. The CHIPS Act aims to help U.S. manufacturers grow an ecosystem in which they produce both mature and state-of-the-art chips at all stages of the manufacturing process and supply chain, and NIST is going to play a big role in this effort.

The Dirt on Semiconductor Chips

Silicon is the most frequently used raw material for chips, and one of the most abundant atomic elements on Earth. To give you a sense of its abundance, silicon and oxygen are the main ingredients of most beach sand, and a major component of glass, rocks and soil (which means that you can also find it in actual, not just metaphorical, dirt).

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Making a “wafer” of semiconductor material, like the one shown here, is the first step for making a chip.
Credit: MS Mikel/Shutterstock.

Silicon is a type of material known as a semiconductor. Electricity flows through semiconductors better than it does through insulators (such as rubber and cotton), but not quite as well as it does through conductors (such as metals and water).

But that’s a good thing. In semiconductors, you can control electric current precisely — and without any moving parts. By applying a small voltage to them, you can either cause current to flow or to stop — making the semiconductor (or a small region within it) act like a conductor or insulator depending on what you want to do.

The first step for making a chip is to start with a thin slice of a semiconductor material, known as a “wafer,” often round in shape. On top of the wafer, manufacturers then create complex miniature electric circuits, commonly called “integrated circuits” (ICs) because they are embedded as one piece on the wafer. A typical IC today contains billions of tiny on-off switches known as transistors that enable a chip to perform a wide range of complex tasks from sending signals to processing information. Increasingly, these circuits also have “photonic” components in which light travels alongside electricity.

Manufacturers typically mass-produce dozens of ICs on a single semiconductor wafer and then dice the wafer to separate the individual pieces. When each of them is packaged as a self-contained device, you have a “chip,” which can then be placed in smartphones, computers and so many other products.

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An array of photonic integrated circuit chips, which use light to process information. These diced photonics chips are ready for assembly and packaging at AIM Photonics, an Albany, New York-based research facility that is part of the national Manufacturing USA network. Credit: AIM Photonics.

Though silicon is the most commonly used raw material for chips, other semiconductors are used depending on the application. For example, gallium nitride is resistant to damage from cosmic rays and other radiation in space, so it’s commonly the material of choice for electronic devices in satellites. Gallium arsenide is frequently employed to make LEDs, because silicon typically produces heat instead of light if you try to make an LED with it.

Non-silicon semiconductors are used in the growing field of “power electronics” in vehicles and energy systems such as wind and solar. Silicon carbide can handle larger amounts of electricity and voltage than other materials, so it has been used in chips for electric vehicles to perform functions such as converting DC battery power into the AC power delivered to the motors.

Diamonds are semiconductors too — and they have the greatest ability to conduct heat of any known material. Artificial diamonds are currently used as the semiconductors in chips for aerospace applications, as they can draw heat away from the power loads generated in those chips.

So Why NIST?

Measurement science plays a key role in up to 50% of semiconductor manufacturing steps, according to a recent NIST report. Good measurements enable manufacturers to mass-produce high-quality, high-performance chips.

NIST has the measurement science and technical standards expertise that is needed by the U.S. chip industry, and our programs to advance manufacturing and support manufacturing networks across the U.S. mean we can partner with industry to find out what they need and deliver on it.

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This is a test chip NIST has developed, as part of a research and development agreement with Google, for measuring the performance of semiconductor devices used in a range of advanced applications such as artificial intelligence. Credit: B. Hoskins/NIST.

NIST researchers already work on semiconductor materials for many reasons. For example, researchers have developed new ways to measure semiconductor materials in order to detect defects (such as a stray aluminum atom in silicon) that could cause chips to malfunction. As electronic components get smaller, chips need to be increasingly free of such defects.

“Modern chips may contain over 100 billion complex nanodevices that are less than 50 atoms across — all must work nearly identically for the chip to function,” the NIST report points out.

Flexible and Printable Chips

NIST researchers also measure the properties of new materials that could be useful for future inventions. All of the semiconductor materials I mentioned above are brittle and can’t be bent. But devices with chips — from pacemakers to blood pressure monitors to defibrillators — are increasingly being made with flexible materials so they can be “wearable” and you can attach them comfortably to the contours of your body. NIST researchers have been at the forefront of the work to develop these “flexible” chips.

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A circuit made from organic thin-film transistors is fabricated on a flexible plastic substrate. Credit: Patrick Mansell/Penn State.

Researchers are also studying materials that could serve as “printable” chips that would be cheaper and more environmentally friendly. Instead of going through the complicated multistep process of making chips in a factory, we are developing ways to print circuits directly onto materials such as paper using technology that’s similar to ink-jet printers.

And while we’ve lost a lot of overall chip manufacturing share, U.S. companies still make many of the machines that carry out the individual steps for fabricating chips, such as those that deposit ultrathin layers of material on top of semiconductors. But what if, instead of these machines being shipped abroad, more domestic manufacturers developed expertise in using them?

To support this effort, NIST researchers are planning to perform measurements with these very machines in their labs. They will study materials that these machines use and the manufacturing processes associated with them. The information from the NIST work could help more domestic manufacturers develop the know-how for making chips. This work can help create an ecosystem with many domestic chip manufacturers, not just a few, leading to a more resilient supply chain.

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Three researchers at NIST’s NanoFab talk science with a state-of-the-art Atomic Layer Deposition (ALD) system in the background.Credit: B. Hayes/NIST.

“Reliance on only one supplier is problematic, as we saw with the recent shortage in baby formula,” NIST’s Jyoti Malhotra pointed out to me. Malhotra serves on the senior leadership team of NIST’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP). MEP has been connecting NIST labs to the U.S. suppliers and manufacturers who produce materials, components, devices and equipment enabling U.S. chip manufacturing.

Advanced Packaging

Last but not least, an area of major excitement at NIST is “advanced packaging.” No, we don’t mean the work of those expert gift-wrappers you may find at stores during the holiday season. When we talk about chip packaging, we’re referring to everything that goes around a chip to protect it from damage and connect it to the rest of the device. Advanced packaging takes things to the next level: It uses ingenious techniques during the chipmaking process to connect multiple chips to each other and the rest of the device in as tiny a space as possible.

But it’s more about just making a smartphone that fits in your pocket. Advanced packaging enables our devices to be faster and more energy-efficient because information can be exchanged between chips over shorter distances and this in turn reduces energy consumption.

One great byproduct of advanced packaging’s innovations can be found on my wrist — namely, the smartwatch I wear for my long-distance runs. My watch uses GPS to measure how far I ran. It also measures my heart rate, and after my workouts, it uploads my running data wirelessly to my phone. Its battery lasts for days; it had plenty of juice left even after I ran a full marathon last month.

Twenty years ago, running watches were big and clunky, with much less functionality. My friends and I had a particular model with a huge face and a bulky slab that fit over the insides of our wrists. When a friend and I opened up his watch to replace his battery, we saw that the GPS receiver was on a completely separate circuit board from the rest of the watch electronics.

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A running friend of mine still has his old running watch, and he recently took a picture of it alongside the modern one that he now uses. The GPS chip in the old watch is on its own circuit board underneath the buttons, apart from the rest of the watch electronics. The modern watch has all the electronic components beneath the small watch face. Credit: Ron Weber.

Under the small and thin face of my current watch you will find all its electronics, including a GPS sensor, battery, heart-rate monitor, wireless communications device and so many other things.

Further development of advanced packaging could produce even more powerful devices for monitoring a patient’s vitals, measuring pollutants in the environment, and increasing situational awareness for soldiers in the field.

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This illustration shows the staggering number of ultrathin semiconductor layers that are possible thanks to “advanced packaging” techniques. When I saw this, it reminded me of one of those amazing sandwiches that the cartoon character Dagwood would eat, but I think this is even more impressive! Credit: DoE 3DFeM center at Penn State University.

Advanced packaging is also a potential niche for domestic manufacturers to grow global market share (currently at 3% for this part of the chipmaking process). Chips are becoming so complex that design and manufacturing processes, once separate steps, are now increasingly intertwined — and the U.S. remains a world leader in chip design. NIST’s measurements to support advanced packaging in chips and standards for the packaging process could give domestic manufacturers a decisive edge in this area.

All the NIST experts I’ve spoken to talk about a future in which chip manufacturers work increasingly closely with their customers, such as automakers. The benefit of closer relationships would mean that customers could collaborate with manufacturers to create more customized chips that bring about completely new products.

And as we’ve seen, incorporating chips into existing products tends to make them “smart,” whether it’s an appliance figuring out how long to bake the bread, or solar panels that maximize electricity production by coordinating the power output from individual panels. With more domestic manufacturers on the scene, there are more opportunities to incorporate chips into products — that could also be manufactured in the U.S.A.

I first encountered semiconductor chips in the 1970s, when the U.S. was a dominant force in chip manufacturing. Inside a department store with my mom, I saw pocket calculators on display, and they fascinated me. You could punch their number keys and they would instantly solve any addition or multiplication problem. As a 6-year-old, I thought that they had little brains in them!

Since then, semiconductor chips have been a big part of my life. And after the pandemic, I realize I can’t take them for granted. I’m glad to be part of an agency that is working to create a more resilient supply chain — and bring back chip manufacturing in this country.
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Semiconductor Chip Glossary

Semiconductor: Material that can act either as a conductor or an insulator of electricity, depending on small changes in voltage

Silicon: Semiconductor material that serves as the basis for many circuits in industry

Transistor: Simple switch, made with a semiconductor material, that turns on or off depending on changes in voltage and can combine with other transistors to create complex devices

Integrated circuit: Many transistors (anywhere from several to billions) combined to make a small circuit on a chip

Wafer: Thin piece of semiconductor material (such as silicon) that we use as a base for building multiple integrated circuits

Lithography: Process of etching into or building onto the surface of a wafer in order to produce patterns of integrated circuits

Chip: Self-contained piece including the semiconductor surface and integrated circuit, independently packaged for use in electronics such as cellphones or computers

Fab: Industrial facility where raw silicon wafers become fully functioning electronic chips
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NIST graphic designer Brandon Hayes and me in our bunny suits as we prepared to enter the NIST NanoFab, where Brandon took many amazing pictures, several of which you see in this blog post. Look for more NanoFab photos from Brandon as we continue to cover this topic in the coming months and years!
Credit: J. Zhang/NIST

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The National Institute of Standards and Technology‘s Mission, Vision, Core Competencies, and Core Values

Mission

To promote U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards, and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life.

NIST’s vision

NIST will be the world’s leader in creating critical measurement solutions and promoting equitable standards. Our efforts stimulate innovation, foster industrial competitiveness, and improve the quality of life.

NIST’s core competencies

Measurement science
Rigorous traceability
Development and use of standards

NIST’s core values

NIST is an organization with strong values, reflected both in our history and our current work. NIST leadership and staff will uphold these values to ensure a high performing environment that is safe and respectful of all.

Perseverance: We take the long view, planning the future with scientific knowledge and imagination to ensure continued impact and relevance for our stakeholders.
Integrity: We are ethical, honest, independent, and provide an objective perspective.
Inclusivity: We work collaboratively to harness the diversity of people and ideas, both inside and outside of NIST, to attain the best solutions to multidisciplinary challenges.
Excellence: We apply rigor and critical thinking to achieve world-class results and continuous improvement in everything we do.

Background

The Articles of Confederation, ratified by the colonies in 1781, contained the clause, “The United States in Congress assembled shall also have the sole and exclusive right and power of regulating the alloy and value of coin struck by their own authority, or by that of the respective states—fixing the standards of weights and measures throughout the United States”. Article 1, section 8, of the Constitution of the United States (1789), transferred this power to Congress; “The Congress shall have power…To coin money, regulate the value thereof, and of foreign coin, and fix the standard of weights and measures”.

In January 1790, President George Washington, in his first annual message to Congress stated that, “Uniformity in the currency, weights, and measures of the United States is an object of great importance, and will, I am persuaded, be duly attended to”, and ordered Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson to prepare a plan for Establishing Uniformity in the Coinage, Weights, and Measures of the United States, afterwards referred to as the Jefferson report. On October 25, 1791, Washington appealed a third time to Congress, “A uniformity of the weights and measures of the country is among the important objects submitted to you by the Constitution and if it can be derived from a standard at once invariable and universal, must be no less honorable to the public council than conducive to the public convenience”, but it was not until 1838, that a uniform set of standards was worked out. In 1821, John Quincy Adams had declared “Weights and measures may be ranked among the necessities of life to every individual of human society”.

From 1830 until 1901, the role of overseeing weights and measures was carried out by the Office of Standard Weights and Measures, which was part of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey in the Department of the Treasury.

Bureau of Standards

In 1901 in response to a bill proposed by Congressman James H. Southard (R- Ohio) the National Bureau of Standards was founded with the mandate to provide standard weights and measures and to serve as the national physical laboratory for the United States. (Southard had previously sponsored a bill for metric conversion of the United States.)

President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Samuel W. Stratton as the first director. The budget for the first year of operation was $40,000. The Bureau took custody of the copies of the kilogram and meter bars that were the standards for US measures, and set up a program to provide metrology services for United States scientific and commercial users. A laboratory site was constructed in Washington DC (US) and instruments were acquired from the national physical laboratories of Europe. In addition to weights and measures the Bureau developed instruments for electrical units and for measurement of light. In 1905 a meeting was called that would be the first National Conference on Weights and Measures.

Initially conceived as purely a metrology agency the Bureau of Standards was directed by Herbert Hoover to set up divisions to develop commercial standards for materials and products. Some of these standards were for products intended for government use; but product standards also affected private-sector consumption. Quality standards were developed for products including some types of clothing; automobile brake systems and headlamps; antifreeze; and electrical safety. During World War I, the Bureau worked on multiple problems related to war production even operating its own facility to produce optical glass when European supplies were cut off. Between the wars Harry Diamond of the Bureau developed a blind approach radio aircraft landing system. During World War II military research and development was carried out including development of radio propagation forecast methods; the proximity fuze and the standardized airframe used originally for Project Pigeon; and shortly afterwards the autonomously radar-guided Bat anti-ship guided bomb and the Kingfisher family of torpedo-carrying missiles.

In 1948, financed by the United States Air Force the Bureau began design and construction of SEAC: the Standards Eastern Automatic Computer. The computer went into operation in May 1950 using a combination of vacuum tubes and solid-state diode logic. About the same time the Standards Western Automatic Computer, was built at the Los Angeles office of the NBS by Harry Huskey and used for research there. A mobile version- DYSEAC- was built for the Signal Corps in 1954.

Due to a changing mission, the “National Bureau of Standards” became the “ The National Institute of Standards and Technology” in 1988.

Following September 11, 2001, NIST conducted the official investigation into the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings.

Organization

NIST is headquartered in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and operates a facility in Boulder, Colorado, which was dedicated by President Eisenhower in 1954. NIST’s activities are organized into laboratory programs and extramural programs. Effective October 1, 2010, NIST was realigned by reducing the number of NIST laboratory units from ten to six. NIST Laboratories include:

Communications Technology Laboratory (CTL)
Engineering Laboratory (EL)
Information Technology Laboratory (ITL)
Center for Neutron Research (NCNR)
Material Measurement Laboratory (MML)
Physical Measurement Laboratory (PML)

Extramural programs include:

Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP), a nationwide network of centers to assist small and mid-sized manufacturers to create and retain jobs, improve efficiencies, and minimize waste through process improvements and to increase market penetration with innovation and growth strategies;
Technology Innovation Program (TIP), a grant program where NIST and industry partners cost share the early-stage development of innovative but high-risk technologies;
Baldrige Performance Excellence Program, which administers the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, the nation’s highest award for performance and business excellence.

NIST’s Boulder laboratories are best known for NIST‑F1 which houses an atomic clock.

NIST‑F1 serves as the source of the nation’s official time. From its measurement of the natural resonance frequency of cesium—which defines the second—NIST broadcasts time signals via longwave radio station WWVB near Fort Collins in Colorado, and shortwave radio stations WWV and WWVH, located near Fort Collins and Kekaha in Hawai’i, respectively.

NIST also operates a neutron science user facility: the NIST Center for Neutron Research (NCNR).

The NCNR provides scientists access to a variety of neutron scattering instruments which they use in many research fields (materials science; fuel cells; biotechnology etc.).

The SURF III Synchrotron Ultraviolet Radiation Facility is a source of synchrotron radiation in continuous operation since 1961.

SURF III now serves as the US national standard for source-based radiometry throughout the generalized optical spectrum. All NASA-borne extreme-ultraviolet observation instruments have been calibrated at SURF since the 1970s, and SURF is used for measurement and characterization of systems for extreme ultraviolet lithography.

The Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology performs research in nanotechnology, both through internal research efforts and by running a user-accessible cleanroom nanomanufacturing facility.

This “NanoFab” is equipped with tools for lithographic patterning and imaging (e.g., electron microscopes and atomic force microscopes).
Committees

NIST has seven standing committees:

Technical Guidelines Development Committee (TGDC)
Advisory Committee on Earthquake Hazards Reduction (ACEHR)
National Construction Safety Team Advisory Committee (NCST Advisory Committee)
Information Security and Privacy Advisory Board (ISPAB)
Visiting Committee on Advanced Technology (VCAT)
Board of Overseers for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award (MBNQA Board of Overseers)
Manufacturing Extension Partnership National Advisory Board (MEPNAB)

Measurements and standards

As part of its mission, NIST supplies industry, academia, government, and other users with over 1,300 Standard Reference Materials (SRMs). These artifacts are certified as having specific characteristics or component content, used as calibration standards for measuring equipment and procedures, quality control benchmarks for industrial processes, and experimental control samples.

Handbook 44

NIST publishes the Handbook 44 each year after the annual meeting of the National Conference on Weights and Measures (NCWM). Each edition is developed through cooperation of the Committee on Specifications and Tolerances of the NCWM and the Weights and Measures Division (WMD) of the NIST. The purpose of the book is a partial fulfillment of the statutory responsibility for “cooperation with the states in securing uniformity of weights and measures laws and methods of inspection”.

NIST has been publishing various forms of what is now the Handbook 44 since 1918 and began publication under the current name in 1949. The 2010 edition conforms to the concept of the primary use of the SI (metric) measurements recommended by the Omnibus Foreign Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988.