In the press: It could create 5,000 jobs but what is the compound semiconductor cluster project for South Wales?

There are ambitious plans to create the world’s first compound semiconductor cluster in South Wales that could create 5,000 jobs - but what exactly is it?

Well it's a long-term project being driven by one of Wales' leading technology firms IQE and Cardiff University, with backing from the Welsh Government and the UK Government through Innovate UK.

But firstly what are compound semiconductors?

Compound semiconductors are essential components inside many of the devices changing the way we live , such as as Wifi, smartphones, GPS, satellite communications and more efficient LEDs.

They will also be crucial for many of tomorrow’s advanced applications, such as: electric vehicles with anti-collision sensors, wearable technology to monitor health and high-efficiency solar cells to use in space.

How do they work?

An IQE technician holding a wafer in cleanroom

They work exactly like silicon chips, but with much higher performance - up to 100 times faster - which is why they are important in high speed communications devices such as smartphones, and the performance requirements will increase further when we move from 3G/4G to 5G.

Compound semiconductors also offer greater power efficiency (essential for battery powered devices) and a wide range of optical properties for emitting and receiving light - from the ultraviolet through visible to infrared.

The optical properties are used in fibre optic communications (lasers and receivers) and sensors used in a host of applications from vehicles to health care technologies.

What’s in them?

Compound semiconductors are “atomically engineered” materials comprising several elements including gallium, indium, phosphorus, arsenic, nitrogen and silicon, as opposed to just plain silicon.

Every mobile phone that operates on 3G or above will contain a number of compound semiconductor chips for the communication processes alongside traditional silicon chips that handle basic functions such as memory for example.

IQE has a 55% global market share so it is highly probably that your phone contains a little piece of IQE’s materials.

A huge and growing market

Cardiff University Vice-Chancellor, Professor Colin Riordan (left) and Dr Drew Nelson, chief executive of IQE

The total, global semiconductor market (compound semiconductors and silicon) is worth around $350bn a year and growing at 10-15% per annum.

Compound semiconductor market is around $30bn, but there is huge growth potential in new and emerging technologies such as driverless and autonomous vehicles and in healthcare technologies.

So what is planned for the South Wales cluster?

  • The £90m Institute for Compound Semiconductor Technology

This has been established at Cardiff University’s Innovation Campus and will officially open in 2018.

Supported with £12m from the Welsh Government, it will provide ultra-modern facilities, enabling researchers and industry to work together on device fabrication and testing. It will house 116 researchers.

Professor Diana Huffaker

The director of the institute is Professor Diana Huffaker, one of the world’s leading experts in compound semiconductors. She was appointed through our Sêr Cymru programme as chair in advanced engineering and materials at Cardiff University.

  • The creation of a £42m Compound Semiconductor Centre .

This is a joint venture between Cardiff University and IQE, one of the world’s leading suppliers of compound semiconductor wafers.

It will focus on growing a range of innovative new compound semiconductor materials. The centre, based in St. Mellons, is now operational and currently employs 65 people, with plans to expand.

  • The Development a Compound Semiconductor Applications Catapult in Wales.

Following negotiations with Innovate UK, Britain’s innovation agency, back in January the then Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced £50m of funding over the next five years.

It will be the first catapult to be headquartered in Wales. And alongside partner match funding, it will result in a total £150m investment for the sector.

The catapult will focus on helping businesses turn the new materials developed at the institute into applications for new products.

Like the other catapults in Britain, it will be a UK-wide facility; industry-led and focused, with open access for start-ups, SMEs and larger companies.

There is also expected to be additional funding for the cluster project from the £1.2bn City Deal for the Cardiff Capital City Region.

And while there is uncertainty over the future of European Funding, it could also target the multi-billion pound technology focused Horizon 2020 funding pot.

Jobs boost

Altogether, the institute, the centre and the catapult, will lead to more than 300 direct jobs.

In addition, early stage research from Cardiff University indicates that up to 5,000 new indirect jobs to be created by 2025 amongst existing and new companies which will locate around the cluster hub.

Are there any other planned clusters elsewhere the world?

There are several pockets of activity around the world and the US has recently invested in the formation of a “photonics” cluster (ironically, IQE is one of 50 industrial partners in the US initiative) - but there no single, cohesive cluster at this time.

So the South Wales cluster has a chance of being the world’s first.

Location

Dr Drew Nelson chief executive of IQE

The Compound Semiconductor Centre (not to be confused with the catapult) will be co-located at IQE’s Cardiff facilities at St Mellons and technology development work will star this year.

IQE is currently looking at additional facilities for expansion, with the aim of commencing operations in 2017/2018.

The firm is also working with Innovate UK to evaluate potential locations for the catapult and a decision is expected by the end of the year.

The cluster impact

Silicon Valley being the most obvious, but in Europe, there are four key clusters around Leuven (Belgium), Dresden (Germany), Eindhoven (The Netherlands) and Grenoble (France.)

Between them, there are around 800 companies employing 150,000 skilled people.

What types of jobs will be created?

Wide ranging but technical, with a a real need for the science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines (STEM).

The majority will be skilled, highly paid technology jobs at graduate and postgraduate level.

There will also be a focus on apprenticeships.

Article published by WalesOnline (http://www.walesonline.co.uk/business/business-news/could-create-5000-jobs-what-11662536