Semiconductors Are A Chemical Industry in Chemical Week

May 9, 2001 - New York, NY

Gordon Moore, chairman emeritus and cofounder of semiconductor giant Intel, was awarded the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s  Othmer Gold Medal last week in New York. Recognizing Moore’s achievement in the semiconductor industry as part of the mainstream of chemistry is a timely reminder of the pervasiveness of chemistry in areas that are perceived as glamorous high tech but curiously separate from what is normally identified as the chemical industry.

Moore himself has no problems with all this. Was he surprised to be selected for the award—as some of the judges were at his candidacy?“I really was,” he says,“but I do consider the semiconductor industry a chemical industry. It’s materials processing. The product we make is electronic, but the techniques by which it is made are really chemical.” Each of the 20-25 manufacturing steps in semiconductor production at companies like Intel is“taking advantage of the chemical properties of the materials,” from the doping of the basic silicon through photoresist polymerization and other processing steps, albeit at purity levels unprecedented in most other industries.

Given the very different public and investor perceptions of the semiconductor and traditional chemical industries, what could the chemical industry do to help itself? From an investor perspective,“you have to develop a growth scenario that Wall Street can believe in,” says Moore. He points out that since the 1960s, the semiconductor industry has posted a 100-fold increase in revenue.

The traditional chemical industry has other baggage, however, he says.“There are historic problems the classic chemical industry has had that won’t go away, such as Bhopal,” he adds.“In the semiconductor industry, we don’t handle things in those size batches.” The semiconductor industry has had its own problems, with groundwater contamination and certain process chemicals, says Moore.“We use a bunch of noxious chemicals,” he says.“We seem to favor hydrides—arsine, phosphine, and silane, which has probably caused the most problems,” he adds.“One has to be careful. We had the advantage of starting later, when people had a stronger interest in environmental concerns.” Moore added another observation that might raise some hackles in the“classic” chemical industry: the semiconductor industry has had the advantage that the materials cost in the final product is a small percentage of the end product value, which gives the industry the ability to take more precautions than might be the case if the materials cost is 80% of the final product’s price, he says...

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