Last Updated: 02/01/2013*
In a gleaming new plant in Scotland, workers in clean-room suits and surgical masks are making electronics of the future out of a material that dates to the beginnings of the solar system.
Using high-voltage beams of ions, Raytheon technicians are building circuits from synthetic wafers of silicon carbide, a substance that is also found naturally in asteroids and interplanetary dust. The resulting electronic circuits can withstand blazing temperatures, paving the way for advances in everything from air travel to oil drilling.
“We’re pushing the boundaries of science,” said Neil MacTavish, a business development manager. Nearby, workers peered through microscopes and guided fragile wafers into furnaces heated to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,700 degrees Celsius).
The silicon carbide foundry opened in January 2013 in Glenrothes, about 20 miles (30 kilometers) north of Edinburgh in Scotland’s “Silicon Glen” high-tech region.
Raytheon workers in Glenrothes also make more conventional electronic circuits from silicon. But silicon carbide is a much harder material – so hard it is often used as a substitute for diamonds in jewelry or cutting tools.
“It’s a challenging material to work with,” said Robin Thompson, process technology manager at the foundry.
In the foundry’s clean room, Raytheon technicians will shoot streams of charged ions at 4-inch (100-millimeter) wafers of silicon carbide, implanting them in the material and permanently altering their conductivity.
The entire manufacturing procedure can take several weeks and involves more than 60 tools and stages.
The final products can tolerate much higher voltages than conventional electronics and withstand temperatures up to 750 degrees Fahrenheit, or 400 degrees Celsius.
Designers of automotive and aircraft systems can put silicon carbide sensors and other components closer to where fuel is burned, saving weight and increasing energy efficiency. Computer “server farms” using silicon carbide technology would require less cooling.
“The world is looking for better use of energy,” said Ewan Ramsay, a design engineer. “In the future those applications will use less energy for the same functions that we can today.”
The circuits can also bring new efficiency to solar cell systems, oil and geothermal drilling, and other technologies, Thompson said. Raytheon is already part of a British consortium using silicon carbide transistors for future electric and hybrid cars.
“To know that thousands of people will be using the devices made in this foundry is a very, very good feeling,” Thompson said.
* The content on this page is classified as historical content. See this important information regarding such content.