Wales’ compound semiconductor cluster: An update

8 July 2016

Article by Nia George and Megan Jones, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

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This is a picture of the Chamber

The Minister for Skills and Science, Julie James, will make a Plenary statement on 12 July to provide Assembly Members with an update on Wales’ compound semiconductor cluster. This article explains what compound semiconductor clusters are, and describes the development of Wales’ compound semiconductor cluster so far.

What is the compound semiconductor cluster?

Compound semiconductor technology is used in devices such as smart phones and computer tablets, as well as playing a vital part in the development of mass communications and biotechnology (further details about compound semiconductors below).

A semiconductor cluster connects the entire semiconductor industry, including education, research and manufacturing, in order to develop new technologies. A cluster is usually led by one or several manufacturers and a research institute. The proposed compound semiconductor cluster in south Wales is based on a joint venture between IQE and Cardiff University, which is supported by Welsh Government funds. Four clusters working on silicon technologies already exist in Europe, but the cluster in South Wales is the first cluster dedicated to compound semiconductors.

The Welsh Government announced in November 2015 that it would be providing a £12 million funding package to support the construction, fitting and purchasing of capital equipment for Cardiff University’s Institute for Compound Semiconductors. As part of the proposed compound semiconductor cluster IQE will be working closely with the Institute for Compound Semiconductors. This will complement the joint venture between Cardiff University and IQE that has established a Compound Semiconductor Centre. The centre is a for-profit organisation that works to deliver commercial prototypes and pilot lines.

In January 2016 the UK Government announced that it would invest £50 million over the following five years to establish the UK National Centre for Compound Semiconductors in south Wales, as part of the Network of Research and Development Catapults. The aim of this investment, along with the establishment of the new National Centre for Compound Semiconductors, is to support the wider strategy to establish a compound semiconductor cluster in south Wales.

Catapult centres

As explained above, the National Centre for Compound Semiconductors is being developed as part of the Network of Research and Development Catapults. According to the UK Government, Catapult centres are a network of world-leading centres designed to transform the UK’s capability for innovation in specific areas and help drive future economic growth. The centres are not-for-profit, independent centres, overseen by Innovate UK, to help support innovation by UK business. Each catapult centre specialises in a different technological area, but all aim to offer the opportunity for businesses and researchers to collaborate to develop new products and services on a commercial scale. The objectives of catapult centres are to:

  • Reduce the risk of innovation;
  • Accelerate the pace of business development;
  • Create sustainable jobs and growth; and
  • Develop the UK’s skills and knowledge base and its global competitiveness.

What is a compound semiconductor?

Compound semiconductors are seen by some as being key to future technological developments, as they are vital in the technology behind items such as smart phones and tablet computers. They are also crucial for the development of the 5G network and wireless technology, and could support new industries such as advanced communications and the new generation of electric vehicles.

But how does it work? A semiconductor is a substance whose electrical conductivity lies between that of a conductor such as copper or aluminium and an insulator like rubber or glass. It can conduct and insulate electricity depending on the conditions. A compound semiconductor is a semiconductor that is made up of two or more different chemical elements.

Sêr Cymru

In May 2015, Professor Diana Huffaker was appointed as the director of the Institute for Compound Semiconductors and Chair in Advanced Engineering and Materials at Cardiff University. The Chair in Advanced Engineering and Materials was funded as part of the Welsh Government’s Sêr Cymru programme. The aim of the five-year programme is to attract leading international scientists to new research chairs at Welsh universities. Professor Huffaker is the fourth appointment under the Sêr Cymru programme, and details of the other appointments can be found on the Welsh Government website.