Chipping in with gallium

Gallium, a viable alternative to silicon, will soon be produced in India

Published: Monday 30 June 1997

Gallium arsenide chips willpow INDIA has achieved a major break- through in the production of gallium at the National Aluminium Refinery, Damanjodi, Orissa, with the setting up of a pilot plant to produce 1,000 kg of gallium per year. India has thus become a potential source of this strategic raw material for the world's semiconductor industry.

A handful of chipmakers are striking it rich by producing many new electronic products. Gallium arsenide (GaAs), a semiconductor inaterial, is inherently much faster than silicon. Long considered a technology in search of a home, GaAs found eager customers among military and aerospace com panies. These companies were willing to pay double or mote to bypass silicon's speed limits in microwave communication and radar. As the Cold War ended, supercomputer companies realised that GaAs chips could speed up their next generation computers. To counter this, Intel Corp reduced the prices of silicon microprocessors so much that it was cheaper to boost speed with multiple silicon chips instead.

GaAs is now finding its way into civilian communications. As a result, the gallium arsenide business is the key element in the semiconductor industry. GaAs' resurgence stems from an ever- expanding range of applications. Ericsson's latest cellular phones have GaAs chips to boost performance. Scientific'-Atlanta Inc, a leading producer of cable- TVgear in the us, recently intro- duced a system that harnesses GaAs to add 50 channels. GaAs' speed might thus even be the key to digital TV in the future. The demand for GaAs is projected to soar further as telecom companies launch new wireless services. Beginning this year, the market for GaAs should start growing at 50-60 per cent a year.

The cost of putting up a GaAs manufacturing facility is also much less than that of a silicon chip plant: GaAs plants are much smaller than the billion-dollar sprawling facilities that produce silicon chips.

The advantage that GaAs has always enjoyed is speed, as it is five times faster than silicon. It also has a higher signal-to-noise ratio. That means cell phones can wander farther from their base stations. As GaAs chips consume less power, wireless models can either be used with smaller batteries or offer longer battery life.

To handle the surge in traffic in wireless phones, cell phone frequencies are being raised from 900 megahertz to 1.9 gigahertz in tomorrow's so-called personal communication services. At those frequencies, GaAs is essentially the only choice.

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