The designers of ball shaped semiconductors believe their creation will take it way beyond the traditional competition represented by the likes of Intel in the PC business.
Startup Ball Semiconductor has one simple idea: a one-millimetre spherical semiconductor designed to create new electronic applications. "The ball has height and we will use that feature," said Hideshi Nakano, a cofounder and chief operating officer of Ball.
Nakano explained that the tiny balls could be used by the medical industry to help keep track of body temperature or blood pressure. The patient would swallow the balls which could measure and transmit this information back to a nursing station.
The company also plans to manufacture a ball-within-a-ball device which could be used as an accelerometer in cars. When the vehicle makes sudden movements during a collision, the inner sphere would come into contact with the outer to trigger an air bag, for example, said Nakano.
The devices begin as tiny silicon polycrystal granules and are remade into finished products inside a long series of quart vacuum tubes. Moving through the tubes, they are exposed to a variety of semiconductor production processes, including crystal growing, polishing, etching and lithography. Nakano said the process can produce the completed spheres at about one-tenth the cost of a semiconductor fab, mainly by doing away with the need for ultra-expensive cleanrooms.
The company plans to make semiconductors on one millimetre spheres and then go down to 0 .8 millimetres in diameter. The sphere functions as an inverter with two transistors etched on its 3.14 square millimetre surface, using 5.0 micron line widths. The most immediate plan is to coil wires around the ball to create an antenna and then use the spheres as sensors that can also relay data back to another electronic device.
"The key to understanding Ball is to see them as a new product, using a new technology for new applications," said analyst George Lee, director of Cap Gemini America's semiconductor industry sector in California. "Don't look at them as a replacement for the semiconductor industry as we know it today."
So far Ball Semiconductor has raised $52 million in first-round financing from Japanese and Asian investors. Initial production is expected to begin in 2000.
The global market for semiconductors is expected to top $300 billion in the next five years, while the market for electronic devices powered by semiconductors is expected to be worth more than $3 trillion by the turn of the century.
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