Australia’s place in the semiconductor world: Research strengths and a supportive environment

Today in Australia’s place in the semiconductor world, we hear from Dr Jane Fitzpatrick of series sponsor ANFF. Here she writes of the importance of Australia’s R&D community to commercial activity in semiconductors, a topic we are sure to return to in future articles.

There’s no argument that to help key domestic industries like defence, space, and medtech stay internationally relevant, a chip supply line that can survive unpredictable global events is essential.

While self-sufficiency is highly unlikely in the medium term, recent years have demonstrated that complete reliance on other nations for supply is not an option – there is a real and pressing need to improve capability to produce semiconductor chips locally in order to bridge future failings in the chain.

However, the Australian R&D sector stands as a fantastic asset to bring to the negotiations table to secure international supply in the near term, and to also provide the business that can get fledgling foundries off the mark.

One thing seen regularly by those at the interface of research and industry here is that there’s a steady stream of brilliant people and products with the potential to succeed in the global market. They’re laying a foundation for a profoundly powerful position on the world stage as the masters of the niche and the new. 

Semiconductor-related research here is as rich as it is broad – domestic R&D competes or leads globally in a range of technologies that are either established industries including photonics, MEMS, and solar devices; or gamechangers of the future such as quantum technologies, holograms, and novel materials like graphene. Australia can compete extremely well when using compound semiconductors (those not based solely on silicon) and in the innovative use of stable fabrication technologies that use larger structures than those at the leading edge of semiconductor manufacture.

This R&D might is driven by great engineers, talented designers, and inspired inventors, all underpinned by a world-class network of supporting infrastructure provided by organisations like the Australian National Fabrication Facility (ANFF) and its NCRIS-funded colleagues. ANFF is government-funded to provide open access to micro and nanofabrication equipment and expertise: capabilities essential to the design, prototyping, and iteration of new devices.

Within ANFF, there’s a growing base of clients from industry and academia that are prototyping new semiconductor architectures, and moving through to the latter stages of commercial readiness. Providing translational facilities helps sovereign IP to move further along the development pathway and ensure more ideas make it to the marketplace, but they’re already evidence of the invaluable contributions that Australia can make globally.

A world-first scalable graphite-to-graphene production method developed by researchers at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials and ANFF Materials Node has recently been purchased by the Sydney based Sicona Battery Technologies Ltd.

Our specialist expertise attracts international interest – Semefab, a UK based semiconductor manufacturer, is entering mass production of silicon-carbide Schottky diodes based on patented technology developed at the Queensland Micro- and Nanotechnology Centre at Griffith University.

Australia’s position as world leaders in quantum is also bearing fruit, and 2022 saw the culmination of two decades of research conducted by former ANFF-NSW Director Professor Andrew Dzurak and his team at UNSW launch a start-up company – Diraq – which maintains 28 patents and patents applications in the field of silicon quantum computing.

But while the growing number of international companies and homegrown start-ups active in semiconductor R&D is a testament to a healthy, driven, developing space, the absence of onshore manufacturing centres and the fact that so many are demanding improved support shows that there’s work to be done to help the sector reach its potential. 

Local industry faces fierce competition from overseas when it comes to keeping staff and when employers do need to seek fresh talent, the pool to hire from is small and replenishes slowly. Improving the development of the workforce is essential.

We also don’t know enough about the creation of IP in Australia’s semiconductor space – careful analysis to better understand where and how the most unique ideas are produced must be conducted.

But one of the largest issues facing the industry is the lack of commercial scale fabrication capability. ANFF focuses on the development stage of the IP journey and a facility or foundry more aligned with small scale manufacture in targeted technologies would be a substantial boost to Australia sovereign capability. 

As discussed in ASPI’s Australia’s semiconductor national moonshot report, published in September 2022, while there is activity in the ecosystem, full scale manufacturing is essentially non-existent. This makes it near impossible to even get close to attracting overseas industry that could help our own sector to grow, while also slowing the development of homegrown technologies, and pushes the production of market-ready devices away from our shores.   

The bad news is that everything except inaction will cost time and money – both of which are in short supply in a rapidly changing industry being built in a fragile global economy. However, these uncertain times have precisely demonstrated why we need to take strong action towards bringing capability on shore, and leverage the 15 years of work, research, and investment behind ANFF and organisations like it to provide a launchpad for a fit-for-purpose Australian semiconductor manufacturing industry.

Our late starting and nearly blank manufacturing canvas brings an opportunity to borrow learnings from elsewhere. We are able to learn from the successes and failings of other nations as we start to build this sector and bring in well-established manufacturing practices that have already been problem solved. 

Building centres that utilise industry standard – not cutting edge – fabrication processes would reduce set up cost and ensure that there is sufficient capability here to survive should the supply chain fall down.

As also stated in the ASPI report, there’s space to be more ambitious – because of our foundation of world-class R&D we have significant semiconductor-related strengths that we can build towards supporting. Further investment in industry-relevant small-scale facilities to deliver composite semiconductor devices would play to local expertise in compound semiconductors, photonic applications and advanced MEMS systems. Based on examples from other jurisdictions, this could also be used to encourage commercial operations to establish facilities in Australia and bring manufacturing to our shores. 

Not starting the conversation around how to create a long-term framework of infrastructure that supports the entire semiconductor pipeline and how to provide financial support for these types of projects only leaves us further behind the pack, risks spoiling a fountain of economic potential, and fails to capitalise on this great Australian strength in R&D.

However, by doubling down on our strong research community that leads in so many areas, while also supporting our internationally recognised chip design services, and nurturing the domestic high-value-low-volume manufacturers and suppliers, there are sections of the semiconductor sector that are ripe for us to make our own.

Jane Fitzpatrick, PhD is Chief Executive Officer at the Australian National Fabrication Facility.

@AuManufacturing and AUS-Semiconductor-Community’s editorial series, Australia’s place in the semiconductor world, is brought to you with the support of ANFF.

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