As with other industries, the telecom industry is grappling with sustainability; how can it minimise environmental impact and improve security and supply chain resilience, while delivering considerable growth in services and data rates? Addressing these challenges requires an in-depth knowledge of semiconductors: the functions they provide, how they are designed and where they are fabricated, along with future trends.
Silicon semiconductors form the largest group providing much of the data processing functionality and are used across telecoms from data centres to network routers, smartphones and IoT devices.
Yet the introduction of 5G, IoT, and autonomous vehicles, alongside the need for more efficient renewable energy, is creating new demands that push beyond the capabilities of silicon. Compound semiconductors, which are made from two or more elements, are better equipped to meet these emerging needs.
Historically, compound semiconductors were more costly to fabricate than silicon but recent advances in manufacturing are reducing the costs and opening-up new applications. Compound semiconductors have several key properties that outperform silicon:
- Power: They can handle much higher power levels with lower losses, improving the efficiency of data centres
- Speed: Compound semiconductors operate much faster than silicon, providing a pathway to higher data rates for 5G and beyond via base stations and satellite communications
- Light: They can detect and emit light efficiently, supporting both optical fibre communications and future advances based on quantum technologies
Over the past decade, the Engineering and Physical Research Council (EPSRC) has invested around £1bn in compound semiconductor research. In 2017, Innovate UK established the Compound Semiconductor Applications Catapult to capitalise on the EPSRC investments and accelerate the commercial application of compound semiconductors. The CSA Catapult has created a world-leading innovation centre in Newport South Wales and will shortly open a Telecom Research Hub in Bristol.
The recently published National Semiconductor Strategy highlights UK strengths in design / IP, compound semiconductors and a world-leading research and innovation ecosystem.