Brazil powers up semiconductor research

“Beam me up, João” doesn’t have quite the familiar ring of Captain Kirk’s trademark command in the long-running Star Trek TV and movie series – but Brazilian scientists predict a not-so-distant future when ubiquitous hand-held devices will revolutionise daily life and cater to the every need of their countrymen.

Urgent need for wafer fabrication

Urgent need for wafer fabrication

Such futurology exercises formed part of the more empirical scientific discussions at the International Conference on Electroceramics, (ICE)  held in the Brazilian coastal city of João Pessoa in November 2013.

Two decades ago few in Brazil could have predicted the ubiquity and utility of the cellphone. Yet very soon, its successor will  execute a range of tasks including the ability to turn on and off lights or the television, to pay for supermarket purchases or to go through a subway turnstile, thanks to embedded NFC and RFID features already in commercial operation  with  mobile carriers in many countries.

At the João Pessoa conference, that was the proposition of José Arana Varela, a nanotechnology specialist and the CEO of the São Paulo Research  Foundation (FAPESP). A full professor at Universidade Estadual Paulista at the Araraquara Campus (Unesp-Araraquara), Prof Varela said:  “Memory will be a central factor. Connected to different circuits, a single device could conduct multiple functions. And this memory will be composed of electroceramic material.”

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Although Brazil has had a lively electronic component assembly industry for decades, it has lagged behind Asian counterparts as a semiconductor powerhouse in terms of both foundries,   wafer fabrication, design and manufacture. Compared to Asian Tigers where semiconductors account for over 12% of GDP, Brazil’s electronics industry accounts for less than 2% of GDP.

In order to kickstart a semiconductor industry the government back in 2008 poured funds into CEITEC S.A., a for-profit company encompassing IC Design and CMOS manufacturing units. The government’s Programme of Technological Development Support Semiconductor Industry (Padis), aims to encourage research and development stages of assembly and manufacture of integrated circuits. Beside CEITEC, six companies are in operation: SiliconReef, Smart and Flex IC, CBS and HT.

In a related development, ownership change could bring new extra innovation to  Six Semiconductors, a Brazilian-government sponsored chipset  business  which had included  beleagured Brazilian billionaire Eike Batista  among its investors.   Batista has now sold his  33% stake to Argentinian investor Eduardo Eurnekian. The other partners in the factory include Brazil’s development bank BNDES, Minas Gerais state development bank BDMG, the Minas Gerais government, IBM (Nasdaq: IBM), Matec Investments and technology group WS-Intec.

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CEITIC’s ambitious expansion plans

The initiative that CEITEC is part of is the result of a partnership between governmental entities, universities, research centres, US corporations, Brazilian companies and foreign investors. Now, Brazilian scientific research institutes and funding agencies like FAPESP are seeking to accelerate the process yet more through international cooperation of the kind visible at the  ICE conference. If Brazil is to become a knowledge-based society and its economy ever to escape dependence on exporting  commodities and agricultural products, then a native electronics industry able to survive without government subsidy is a necessity. So far this is a promise rather than a reality.

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The Brazilian Materials Research Society sponsored the João Pessoa event along with FAPESP, the National Council of Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) and the Brazilian Federal Agency for the Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (Capes). Reginaldo Muccillo, researcher at the Institute of Energy and Nuclear Research (IPEN), and Jose Antonio Eiras, associate professor at Universidade Federal de São Carlos (UFSCar), coordinated the event.

One of the key locations for semiconductor and nanotechnology study is the University Campinas CCS Centre.

Electroceramics covers the field of silicon-semiconductors and their successors in the newer technology field of nanotechnology.

One property of electroceramics that receives significant attention, according to Varela, is called “restrictive memory” – the property that the electrical resistance of the material, which varies according to the applied voltage, does not return to the same value when the voltage is withdrawn. This double resistance value – before and after voltage is applied – creates a binary capability. And binary devices can support data storage.

“Restrictive memory makes semiconductor oxides strong candidates for manufacturing nanostructured devices with high-density data storage, capable of integrating all microelectronics. This is the memory that is being studied at the moment and could cause a new revolution in microelectronics. This memory, which is sufficiently large and stable, can alone integrate the functions of an enormous number of circuits,” said Varela.

You can read a report of the João Pessoa conference by clicking here

You can visit the International Conference on Electroceramics (ICE) website by clicking here.

 

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