The University of Southampton

Rising to the challenge of the global shortage of semiconductors

Published: 31 October 2023

Semiconductors are essential ingredients of almost every electronic and photonic device on the planet. They are used in communications infrastructure, artificial intelligence, robotics, healthcare, military technology, quantum and cloud computing, and everyday consumer devices such as white goods and smart meters. 

But during the COVID-19 pandemic, supplies were seriously disrupted and the world is now facing a semiconductor shortage.  In response, the UK Government have now published the National Semiconductor Strategy. The UK’s strength in photonics and compound semiconductors and the importance of integrated photonics are all emphasised in the strategy. As a result, the Government have committed to investing up to £200 million into the semiconductor sector over the years 2023-25 to help boost the British semiconductor industry. This new strategy brings exciting opportunities to the Future Photonics Hub and its associated universities. 

As the UK government is preparing to secure its world-leading strength in semiconductor technologies, we take a look at key semiconductor research and development that is being carried out by the Future Photonics Hub, some of which is being made available in an open source way by CORNERSTONE, a UK research foundry service providing Silicon Photonics circuits and devices, operated by the University of Southampton. 

Developing Silicon Photonics

Currently the biggest market for semiconductors is silicon electronics, however, there is increasing demand in certain application areas for Silicon Photonics that enables the high volume, low-cost and high-performance production of photonic devices and circuits which utilise and manipulate the properties of light rather than electrons. 

Silicon Photonics at near-infrared wavelengths has already revolutionised data communications, and numerous other applications are emerging. However, some of the emerging applications require longer wavelengths and different waveguiding platforms. 

Semiconductor technology for these longer wavelengths is being developed within the Hub and could have significant global impact in areas such as environmental sensing, early diagnosis of cancer and therapeutic drug monitoring. 

Hub academics are exploring semiconductor technology to extend research into mid-infrared wavelengths – known as the fingerprint region – that could be used to create sensors at the chip scale. 

Professor Graham Reed, a Hub Co-Investigator and Director of CORNERSTONE, has recently been part of a Government delegation to the USA to share the UK’s semiconductor capabilities. He said: “We are carrying out research into the use of semiconductors in silicon photonics to develop spectrometers on a chip that could spot unique identifiers in biological and chemical molecules. These new spectrometers would be smaller, cheaper, more manoeuvrable, more useable, and potentially more sensitive than the current large, bench top tests that may only be available in centralised testing laboratories, adding delays to testing outcomes. Miniaturised chip scale tests could be deployed locally, at the point of care, to dramatically speed up results.” 

“Our Hub colleagues in Sheffield are also exploring the integration of lasers onto these new platforms where appropriate, so that the chips will have the full on-chip sensing capabilities.” 

The synergy between the Hub and CORNERSTONE means that this technology can then potentially be made available to CORNERSTONE users in both academia and industry. 

CORNERSTONE Coordinator Dr Callum Littlejohns said: “As we have done with previous research from the Hub and elsewhere, we take these latest technologies and offer them license free and open source for the benefit of our clients. This flexibility enables them to try out new devices and novel ideas, or to develop new prototypes.” 

Global impact

The Hub’s semiconductor Silicon Photonics research and development is already feeding into a multimillion-pound research programme - Mid-Infrared Silicon Photonic Sensors for Healthcare and Environmental Monitoring (MISSION) - that is spearheading the creation of new sensors that monitor drugs, speed up cancer detection and measure the impact of climate change. 

Led by Southampton’s Zepler Institute (with partners York, Sheffield, University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust and the National Oceanography Centre Southampton), MISSION aims to use spectrometers on a chip to solve societal challenges and transform people’s lives in three key areas: 

  • Environmental monitoring of gases
  • Therapeutic drug monitoring by healthcare professionals
  • Early stage cancer detection 

Environmental monitoring of gases – focusing explicitly on oceans and how sensors on a chip can be used to identify problematic gases in the oceans. Currently these gases are typically monitored by deploying ships with numerous large sensors, but sensors on a chip could be put on robots, drones or even dropped directly into the sea. This could enable more, and previously inaccessible places, to be monitored. 

Therapeutic drug monitoring for healthcare professionals – currently blood samples have to be sent away to a laboratory to measure drug concentrations. Sensors on a chip could enable point-of-care diagnostics allowing doctors to administer more accurate doses of drugs and optimise the effectiveness of drugs in real time. 

Early stage cancer detection – current test equipment is typically very large and/or expensive, meaning patients have to be tested in hospital and the number of people that can be evaluated each day is limited. This also requires a wait for results. Using a spectrometer on a chip would enable more people to be diagnosed more quickly and therefore earlier. The lower-cost, smaller equipment could potentially be available in every doctor’s surgery, every hospital ward and perhaps even in people’s homes. 

The future

The processes being developed at Southampton have the potential to be used in a range of different applications. Spectrometers can be used to measure numerous species from gases to explosives, so in principle it is very widely applicable. 

Through CORNERSTONE, it is not only academics at Southampton who can benefit from the technologies that are developed; they are available to anybody via the open source platform.

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