Thursday, October 27, 2011

3D IC needed? Making a case for 2.5D with Xilinx FPGA launch

During a product launch event in October 2011 for the Xilinx Virtex-7 2000T field programmable gate array (FPGA), a programmable logic device with 6.8 billion transistors, Liam Madden, corporate vice president of FPGA Development and Silicon Technology, spoke about the value of so-called "2.5D packaging." Xilinx connects several die to a silicon interposer to enable this FPGA.

The semiconductor packaging industry used to see 2.5 as stepping stone, Madden said. However, while 3D packaging is coming, there are restraints in real active-on-active die stacking: keepout zones, thermal hot spots, etc.

2.5D packaging gets disparate chips to communicate as if they are on one piece of silicon -- a real advance that many more companies are taking advantage of instead of or before a move to 3D, Madden said. He also points out that 2.5 will teach us a lot about 3D ICs.

See the device architecture details on the Xilinx Virtex-7 2000T FPGA here.

-- Meredith Courtemanche

Monday, October 24, 2011

US solar vs. China: Win to lose?

Taking full advantage of last week's Solar Power International spotlight, seven US-based c-Si solar panel manufacturers dubbed the "Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing" (CASM) said they are filing petitions with the US Department of Commerce and the International Trade Commission, alleging that Chinese rivals are "dumping" products into the market and are receiving "massive illegal subsidies" from their government. Any formal Commerce/ITC investigations could begin in November, with preliminary determinations coming by year's end or early 2012.

Reaction to the trade dispute has been immediate and reflects the complexity involved in such a dispute. On the one hand are US solar manufacturers who feel squarely in the crosshairs and want "significant duties" imposed (up to 100%) to level the playing field. (Also in their corner are local politicians, including Ed Markey/D-Mass who decried a "Manchurian manipulation.") In between are the materials and manufacturing equipment suppliers who have customers (and locations) on both sides. China, naturally, isn't taking the accusations lying down: Yingli, Suntech, and China's Ministry of Commerce [edit 10/27: plus Suntech, Trina and Jinko] have all spoken out publicly against the accusations and potential ramifications. (Firing back, the CASM calls Chinese accusations of US solar protectionism "absurd" coming from what it calls the planet's worst trade law violator: "China has for years been engaging in economic protectionism and a quiet economic war affecting all of its trading partners," the group states. And SolarWorld's president Kevin Kilkelly pointed to the recent Jinko Solar chemical pollution controversy as an example of allowed lack of transparency.)

What seems clear is that most of the industry is treading very carefully on the subject. Besides SolarWorld, the other six coalition members are keeping anonymous (as they are legally entitled to do in the US), likely fearful of ramifications in the high-growth China market. Equipment suppliers are understandably noncommittal; one told us merely that it wants to see "all of our customers around the world drive down the cost of solar electricity." The SEIA agrees that the US can compete given an even playing field -- though a SEIA report earlier this summer calculated the US as a $2B net exporter of solar products.

And note that this complaint is focused on c-Si only, and does not involve thin-film -- where US firm First Solar continues to set the benchmark for the supreme solar PV metric of cost/W manufacturing ($0.75/W). "What we believe in is free and open market access here and everywhere else in the world," FSLR's top exec Rob Gillette was quoted as saying at SPI. Not exactly taking up arms for the cause of US brethren.

The real issue is whether such action is in fact divisive and destructive to solar energy overall. A trio of solar executives speaking at last week's SPI event appeared skeptical that the move would do anything but disrupt and perhaps derail the US' anticipated strong solar growth over the next few years. Plunging module prices has been a key driver in lowering costs for installations, which spurs end-demand and creates jobs. Artificially raising prices by implementing tariffs could easily unravel end-market progress. "If module prices go up, installations are likely to suffer," notes Lux Research Aditya Ranade. And imposing tariffs on Chinese solar products may not even solve the problem, as Chinese firms may just seek lower-cost production elsewhere e.g. other Asian nations or Europe, agrees Paula Mints from Navigant Consulting. "Even if there were sanctions against manufacturers in China in the US, there is not enough manufacturing capacity (technology) to take up the slack in demand," she says.

The New York Times draws several parallels to three decades ago when the enemy was Japanese auto imports; ultimately those foreign companies created assembly lines and jobs here in the US, yet domestic automakers still struggle to compete against Japan. Creating division within the industry might achieve short-term sectorial success for some, but distracts everyone from the real prize: getting all of solar on a level playing field vs. other energy sources, both conventional and other renewables. -- J.M.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

A sad day

Even if you never met the man personally, you most certainly have benefitted from the inventions that Steve Jobs ushered into existence. The legacy that he leaves is one that lifts up the human spirit. Whether it's beginning artists, singers, musicians, and filmmakers who are able to create art using affordable equipment, or science researchers and doctors able to expedite their work to save lives, there are few people left untouched by Steve Jobs' vision.

Our sincere condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues at Apple.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Congratulations to Nobel Prize winner Prof. Daniel Shechtman

I couldn't let pass the notice of Prof. Daniel Shechtman (Technion) winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Shechtman when I arranged for him to give a lecture at Watkins-Johnson Semiconductor Equipment Group (8/4/97 and 8/8/97 - I still have the flyers!!), when I was Quality Systems Director at the company. I was fascinated by the topic and through my manager at the time, CTO, Dr. Avi Katz, who knew Dr. Shechtman, the invitation was extended for our Distinguished Lecturers' series.

I was also delighted that he allowed us to use the diffraction pattern of a quasicrystal (which he provided) for the opening segment of an image video I was creating along with James Banks (videographer and gifted animator) at that time. The video was shown at SEMICON Japan in the WJ booth and that opening segment with the diffraction pattern was perfect - crystallographers, materials scientists, and physicists, chemists, and the like, who saw the video would know what it was. Everyone else just thought it was beautiful.

I know there are quite a few fellow ex-WJ'ers in our Solid State Technology audience. Perhaps some of you remember that lecture by Dr. Shechtman. Please let us know your thoughts.

(Debra Vogler)

SEMI High Tech U. event takes place 10/4-10/6/11

SEMI's SEMI Foundation in association with KLA-Tencor, Advantest, and Nikon, are conducting a special SEMI High Tech University event for high school students running 10/4-10/6/11. During the event, studends will attend classes taught by volunteer industry professionals at the campuses of KLA-Tencor and San Jose State University. (DV)