What are Semiconductor Materials and Why Do They Matter?

By definition, semiconductors are materials that have electrical conductivity intermediate of conductors and insulators. The conductivity of semiconductors can be altered through a process called doping, in which impurities are added to pure base materials. Semiconductors are typically made with group IV materials such as silicon and silicon carbide, group III-V materials such as gallium arsenide and gallium nitride, and group II-VI materials such as cadmium telluride.

Semiconductor materials are integral to the power and electronics industries. They form the foundation of semiconductor devices such as key electronic components and solar cells that control the flow of electrical current and enable power conversion. Semiconductor material innovations have the potential to handle larger loads and increase power conversion efficiency, resulting in cost and energy savings.


Rising Demand for Semiconductor Materials

Rising demand in semiconductor materials is tied to growth in major end-user industries. As end-user demand grows over the next seven years, compound semiconductors that could replace silicon in material applications are also projected to grow. For example, the gallium nitride semiconductor device market will grow at 17 percent per year between 2016 and 2024, reaching $3.4 billion due to increasing use in the aerospace and defense sector. In 2015, the global market for semiconductor fabrication and packaging materials was valued at $43.4 billion, dropping 1.5 percent from the previous year. Asia Pacific dominates the industry with Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and China each having larger market shares than North America (12 percent). However, the materials market in North America grew by 1 percent over 2014–2015 while contracting in Taiwan and Japan. The market for fabrication materials, in particular, is expected to reach about $30 billion by 2020. The growth of complementary materials, such as wet processing chemicals and thin-film metals, is projected to be the fastest among semiconductor market segments at an annual growth rate of 7.7 percent. While showing more modest growth, the market for fabrication equipment accounts for a significant portion of the industry’s revenues.


Opportunities for Innovation

Materials account for roughly 35 to 40 percent of the cost of manufacturing semiconductor devices. Silicon-based semiconductors have fallen in cost over recent years due to their large-scale adoption. Commercial penetration of innovative alternatives will require economies of scale in manufacturing. Gallium nitride semiconductors, for example, are relatively expensive due to the high cost of the materials input and the fabrication process. Other materials, such as gallium arsenide for energy-efficient solar cells, can be 100 to 200 times more expensive to manufacture, relegating them to niche applications. Thus, efforts at the university and federal levels to make cost-competitive, energy-efficient semiconductors could support the growth and expansion of the industry.


Jobs in Semiconductor Materials

Direct jobs in semiconductor materials requires a STEM-based skillset, especially in materials science and electrical/electronic engineering. Industrial production and application of semiconductor materials may also involve other types of engineers, technicians, machine operators, and fabricators in installation, troubleshooting, quality control, and repair, among other activities.