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Business

Electronic Materials

Buoyed by the proliferation of high-tech gadgets, the electronics industry rebounds from last year’s deep downturn

by Jean-François Tremblay
July 12, 2010 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 88, ISSUE 28

CHEMISTRY EVERYWHERE
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Credit: Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing
Chemicals are used in all stages of electronic chip fabrication. Shown here is part of a processing line for silicon wafers at Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing.
8828cov1_semiconductor_opt.jpg
Credit: Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing
Chemicals are used in all stages of electronic chip fabrication. Shown here is part of a processing line for silicon wafers at Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing.

COVER STORY

Electronic Materials

At a shareholders’ meeting last month, Morris Chang, the celebrated chief executive officer of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing, declared that he expects the chip market to grow by 30% in 2010. His prediction was up from the already-robust forecast of 18% growth that he had made just a few months earlier.

Chang’s lofty predictions signal that good times have returned to the electronics industry, and companies that supply it with critical raw materials are rolling along. The boom is mostly powered by the launch of gadgets such as Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s i-series of phones, music players, and computer pads, all of which have stoked consumer enthusiasm.

Firms that supply the electronics industry are relieved by the reversal of fortune. In late 2008 and early 2009, they were stunned by an unprecedented business slowdown triggered by the U.S. mortgage loan crisis; this year, they are struggling to keep up with demand. In fact, semiconductor fabricators’ current efforts to expand capacity have been thwarted by the inability of suppliers of manufacturing equipment to quickly assemble complex machinery. “Semiconductor equipment makers had very few orders in late 2008 and early 2009, but now there’s a shortage of equipment,” says Wouter Taen, BASF’s vice president of electronic materials in Asia.

Cyclicality has always been one of the most frustrating hallmarks of the electronics industry. But these boom-bust cycles, lasting about two years on average, could soon be a thing of the past, says Nobu Koshiba, president of materials maker JSR Corp. Corporations used to be the major buyers of electronic equipment, he explains, but products made for consumers have become more important. “For consumers, it’s a pretty fast product cycle,” he says. “There’s a spring model, and just six months later, a fall model.”

In this cover package, C&EN examines three segments of the fast-changing electronic materials industry. In each story, special attention is paid to the critical role played by advanced materials from the chemical industry in addressing the evolution of modern consumer electronics.

The first story describes how semiconductor materials are evolving to enable successive generations of computer chips. The second story explains how a relatively low-tech step in the high-tech manufacturing of semiconductors has become indispensable to the industry. And the third slooks at efforts by materials makers to bring color to the screens of e-readers.

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