Integrated Circuits Made
The integrated circuit (IC), also called a microchip or microelectronic chip, is the foundation of all modern electronic devices. It contains thousands or millions of tiny transistors, capacitors, diodes and resistors in one small piece of semiconductor material, which is typically a silicon crystal. The IC can function as an amplifier, oscillator, counter, timer, logic gate or computer memory, to name just a few.
The invention of the transistor in 1947 made Integrated Circuits possible, but it took half a century to develop the complex technology needed for large-scale fabrication. During this time, a variety of techniques were developed to reduce the size of components while maintaining their ability to switch quickly and with high reliability. Today, ICs can contain billions of transistors in a single chip that occupies no more space than a human hair.
In the early 1950s, Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce devised ways to lay thin paths of metal on a device that would serve as wires. The first ICs, such as 1K-bit RAMs and calculator chips, contained under 4,000 transistors. As a result of these and other advances in technology, the transistor count on a typical IC is now over 10 billion.
How Are Integrated Circuits Made?
The IC manufacturing process involves many steps, so the production of a single chip can take months. During this time, quality control plays a key role, since any deviation from specifications will affect the performance of the resulting product. To ensure that the finished IC meets all requirements, it must be tested using sophisticated equipment.
Traditionally, the test was conducted by running simulations on an electronic model of the entire IC. This involved programming the model with all the data and conditions required to replicate the IC’s functionality. The simulated results were then compared to the measured output from the IC to verify that it performed correctly. In the case of an IC, this meant confirming that each element was connected properly and that the resulting circuit met all functional and timing requirements.
To achieve the correct results, engineers simulated all the operations of the individual chips on the wafer using software programs known as digital and analog circuit simulators. The software abstracted the actual processes that were used in the factory to create the IC and allowed the IC designer to focus on how each circuit element fit into its overall function.
In the next step, the IC is fabricated on a wafer, or substrate, that is sliced into very thin layers. The base layer, often a monocrystalline silicon wafer, is covered with an oxide layer that serves as an insulator and prevents impurities from entering the pure silicon beneath it. A passivation layer protects the IC from moisture, heat and mechanical stress. Metal contacts, which connect the various elements of the IC to each other and external devices, are deposited on top of this layer by photolithography. A thin layer of metallization, usually aluminum or copper, is then deposited on top of the substrate and patterned to make connections with the appropriate components.
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