Can silicon chips ever be made sustainably?



The increase in demand for semiconductors shows few signs of slowing. As the world moves to 5G technology and concerns about climate change drives the desire for electric vehicles, there has never been higher demand for high-powered and high-quality computer chips.

And as well as the need for more manufacturing bases – which take years to bring online and cost billions of dollars, there's also a shortage of the skilled workers needed to make the chips once the factories are built.

And, of course, there are also big questions to be answered about the sustainability of the industry, as Jo Shien Ng, professor of semiconductor devices in the Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering at the University of Sheffield explains.


Jo Shien Ng is the professor of semiconductor devices at the Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering at the University of Sheffield. She is also a departmental director of research and innovation and a former Royal Society research fellow.

Her research is focused on developing a type of sensor capable of measuring the weakest possible light signals – which has a wide range of applications, such as quantum cryptography (the encryption keys in which are made up of these very weak light signals), which currently offers the ultimate encryption safety.


On top of long lead times for building new chip plants and the supply chain issues to which many have pointed – Ng tells Stephen Cole there is another major issue if the world is to avoid further chip shortages. 

"The real problem is the need for a highly specialized workforce with years of experience - you need time to train them and to have the right kind of graduates to train to start with," she says.

And that workforce is essential to avoid another major issue – sustainability. "Manufacturing these chips is very energy-intensive because you have to create a very stable, a very controlled environment," Ng says. 

But the new skilled chip workforce is continuing to make breakthroughs in this area. 

"Some of the newer chips are using less energy while giving you the same performance. Or use the same energy, giving you better performance. So, a lot of the improvement that we see in terms of energy efficiency in our consumer products is actually down to higher performance from semiconductor chips," the professor explains.



- Malcolm Penn, founder and CEO of Future Horizons analysts, who has more than 50 years' experience in the semiconductor industry tells Cole why the current shortage is not really anything new – but does highlight a major structural issue in the industry.

- And with China, the U.S., the EU and others all announcing new plans to try to dominate the chips market, Rana Mitter, director of Oxford University's China Centre, talks to Cole about why trade tensions could make semiconductors the next geopolitical flashpoint.

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