Silicon carbide is the chip material of the future. The manufacturers of electric cars are almost tearing themselves for the innovative material. Only one thing is slowing down the even faster spread of semiconductors: they are at least twice as expensive as conventional silicon components.
Michael Rüb wants to change that. With the start-up mi2-factory, the professor from Jena wants to reduce production costs by 30 percent in the first step. In the long term, it is even possible to halve the price, the 54-year-old believes. This would be a boon for the European chip industry. Silicon carbide (SiC) semiconductors are one of the few areas of the industry in which Europe is still world-class.
However, the physicist has to solve one problem in advance: in order to build a prototype of his chip machine, he needs a double-digit million amount. In view of the policy announcements to provide billions for the chip industry, substantial government funding should not be a problem – Rüb thought.
In recent months, Brussels and Berlin have announced great support, but it is still unclear when and how much money mi2-factory can expect. “To this day, we don’t even know what the funding rates are,” the founder is annoyed.
Many chip companies and their customers are disappointed by the policy. Europe’s catch-up in chips is in danger of being delayed before it has begun. Even large semiconductor manufacturers complain behind their back that government aid is a long time coming and that the procurement rules delay rather than accelerate innovations.
A well-earning Dax group such as Infineon, Germany’s largest chip group, does not need state financing – even if the companies are then at a disadvantage compared to competitors from Asia. A young company like mi2-factory with only seven employees so far, on the other hand, could fail if there are no subsidies.
The EU has set itself ambitious goals. With a large–scale support program, the Chips Act, Europe is to more than double its share of global semiconductor production by 2030 – to 20 percent by then. At the beginning of the year, Commission Head Ursula von der Leyen presented the plan.
The law is an industrial policy offensive with which the EU wants to make up for Europe’s backlog of other regions and reduce dependencies on Asia. In order to achieve this goal, Brussels wants to interpret the previously strict rules on state aid more freely. 43 Billion euros in public funds are to flow.
Only the companies have not had any of it so far. Rüb found the so-called IPCEI program particularly promising. It stands for “Important Project of Common European Interest”. Generous aid criteria apply to these projects. The EU states can therefore support them very comprehensively.
mi2-factory pushes into the core of chip production
Rüb’s team has developed a technology for so-called doping, a core process of chip production. Foreign atoms are introduced into a base material, in the case of the mi2 factory, the silicon carbide. The conductivity or dielectric strength of power semiconductors can thus be adjusted.
The procedure that the company uses is high-energy ion implantation. For the first time, the Thuringian experts have combined these with what they call an energy filter. This makes the process more precise, which enables smaller semiconductors, novel components and innovative substrates and thus reduces costs.
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Originally, Rüb wanted to produce only the filter itself with the company founded in 2016. “It took us some time to realize that we had to build a complete machine,” says the entrepreneur. In order to commission the first system from a mechanical engineering company, Rüb now needs new money from financial investors. How high this amount must be depends entirely on what the state ultimately provides. Serious negotiations are hardly possible in view of the hanging game, Rüb complains.
Local chip start-ups are enormously important for the German economy as a whole and the established chip manufacturers in particular. This is demonstrated by the examples of Infineon and Bosch. In 2016, Infineon denied the US government the takeover of the American rival Wolfspeed, which specializes in SiC. The acquisition jeopardized national security, it said in justification.
In order to make progress in the strategically important SiC growth area, the Dax Group bought Siltectra from Dresden two years later for 124 million euros. The company, which was eight years old at the time, focused on cutting wafers from the innovative material.
The automotive supplier and chip manufacturer Bosch, in turn, acquired the Dresden star-up Arioso this spring. The Saxons have developed micro loudspeakers based on MEMS (micro-electro-mechanical systems). Bosch is using this technology for its important sensor business. In addition to SiC, sensors are another field in which Europe can still compete with chip companies from Asia and the USA.
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The Federation of German Industries (BDI) is therefore urging the EU to quickly decide on the projects to be funded with IPCEI. The approval procedures should be accelerated and the funds allocated at an early stage, according to a position paper just published. Industry associations such as Silicon Saxony or the Association of the Electrical and Digital Industry (ZVEI) are also calling for more speed.
Chip demand is increasing massively
“We are seeing a massive increase in chip demand,” says ZVEI Managing Director Wolfgang Weber. Across all semiconductors, an increase of eight percent per year is to be expected, for power semiconductors – which include the SiC chips – it is twice as high.
Founder Rüb expects a funding decision at the earliest in the fourth quarter, perhaps also only at the beginning of 2023. The first machines could then be in the chip factories in three or four years. After all, the first companies in Germany have now received the approval of the federal government to start IPCEI projects at their own risk. This is a good signal, said the semiconductor company Infineon on request. According to previous rules, existing projects were not funded. However, this does little to help the mi2 factory, the start-up needs the money from the state to be able to get started.
If the technology proves itself, there should be no shortage of orders. Because SiC chips enable higher ranges of electric cars, and they are also more compact than conventional chips. Infineon has just announced the construction of a new SiC semiconductor factory in Malaysia. “We are in the right market at the right time,” says Rüb. The right promotion is still missing.