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Semiconductor Fundamentals for Electronics Engineering Professionals

The cat’s whisker diode, invented in 1900, was arguably the earliest practical application of a semiconductor. About 50 years later, Bell Labs advanced semiconductor technology with the invention of transistors. Within 10 years, Nobel Laureate Jack Kilby invented the integrated circuit by wiring transistors within and on top of silicon, a semiconductor material. With this, the electronics world was forever changed.

Today, integrated circuits are known as microchips. They are used in everything from toys and interplanetary space explorers to toothbrushes, subways and your cellphone, according to Semiconductor Engineering. The publication notes that “if it has a power switch, it likely owes its electronic life to an integrated circuit,” which operates “within each device as a microprocessor, amplifier or memory.”

As a result, professionals with advanced training and knowledge in the electronics engineering space remain in high demand. These experts have the skills to make innovative strides in the future of semiconductors and technologies. Graduates of Norfolk State University’s online Master of Science (M.S.) in Electronics Engineering with a track in Microelectronics and Photonics program develop these skills and apply their knowledge in practice through a process simulation program and a design project.

How Are Semiconductors Used in Modern Technology?

In the decades since Kilby’s work — integrating an electrical circuit of transistors, capacitors and other components with conducting materials and insulation — the use of semiconductors has revolutionized modern technology.

For example, the highest transistor count in a single chip drives a processor for deep learning, a subset of artificial intelligence (AI). Known as the Cerebras Wafer-Scale Engine, it comprises 2.6 trillion transistors on a single wafer.

The capabilities of this technology do not stop there. The following are just a few examples of semiconductor research and applications:

  • Microelectronics are nanometer-sized integrated circuits used to design, develop and fabricate electronic circuits for compact devices.
  • Photonics comprises developing and applying optical devices and systems that capture and manipulate light for communication, imaging and sensing.
  • Device physics research studies the principles of semiconductor properties and behavior related to designing electronic components for application in integrated circuits and microelectronics.
  • Quantum mechanics is the branch of physics pertaining to the behavior of sub-atomic particles and is used in semiconductor research to develop advanced laser, sensing and optical systems.

Trends and Challenges in Manufacturing and Fabrication Techniques

The semiconductor and integrated-chip industries slumped in 2023, but many predict a recovery that will continue through 2024. The following trends are driving the recovery of manufacturing:

  • AI hardware acceleration supports semiconductor manufacturing, but challenges arise from mechanical stress, such as thermal-induced stress. Those issues are the leading causes of transistor failure, impacting device reliability and performance. Precision control, material optimization and reliability testing in the manufacturing process of AI semiconductor components are critical.
  • Piezoresistive devices measure changes in electrical resistance due to mechanical stress, according to Electronic Design. They support the development of strain-sensing devices that enhance the performance of semiconductor applications.
  • Stress and strain induced by thermal expansion and contraction, mechanical errors in manufacturing processes and the integration of mismatched components can impact microelectronics. Elasticity, which is a semiconductor component’s ability to return to its original state after being deformed, is critical in robotics, prosthetics, health monitoring and medical implants.

Among the most significant factors facing the semiconductor industry has nothing to do with actual fabrication. Instead, funding for new manufacturing sites in the U.S. is a regulatory headwind. With more professionals in this space, strides toward improvement are more within reach.

How Do Professionals Prepare for Careers in Microelectronics and Photonics?

Designed for engineers, Norfolk State’s online M.S. Electronics Engineering – Microelectronics & Photonics program equips graduates with high-demand skills in the effects of quantum mechanics to power lasers, detectors, sensors and optical systems.

The program’s learning objectives include practical applications of the following:

  • The principles of electromagnetism antennas, waveguide discontinuities and equivalent impedance calculations
  • Methods used to predict the deflections of common mechanical structures used in micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS)
  • Semiconductor processing technology, including semiconductor substrates, microfabrication techniques and process integration

“Semiconductor companies are on the cusp of a decade of opportunity, but success will be predicated on the ability to attract and retain the best and brightest,” notes McKinsey & Company on an analysis of the career market for professionals in the field.

Thanks to the program outcomes and its Semiconductor Processing and Technology (Micro and Nanofabrication) course, graduates of Norfolk State’s program are prepared to excel in many electronics engineering roles using microelectronics and photonics technologies.

Learn more about Norfolk State University’s online Master of Science in Electronics Engineering with a track in Microelectronics and Photonics program.

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