Over the last year, with the world still gripped by the COVID-19 pandemic, semiconductor-enabled technologies allowed us to remotely work, study, treat illness, order goods online, and stay connected. As much of the world shut down, semiconductors enabled the gears of the global economy, healthcare, and society writ large to continue spinning.
And, critically, semiconductors helped doctors and scientists develop treatments and vaccines to begin making the world healthy again. Without the semiconductors that power the world’s most advanced supercomputers, for example, the historically rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines would not have been possible.
While the semiconductor industry has achieved great successes in 2021, it also faces significant challenges. Chief among them is a widespread global semiconductor shortage. Unanticipated rising demand for semiconductors needed during the pandemic response, coupled with significant fluctuations in chip demand for other products such as cars, triggered a rippling supply-demand imbalance felt across the world. The semiconductor industry has worked diligently to increase production to address high demand, shipping more semiconductors on a monthly basis than ever before by the middle of 2021, but most industry analysts expect the shortage to linger into 2022.
The shortage increased awareness of the importance of America’s semiconductor supply chains. Although geographic specialization in the global chip supply chain has enabled tremendous growth and innovation in the industry, vulnerabilities in the supply chain have emerged in recent years. For example, in 2019, 100% of the world’s most advanced logic semiconductors (< 10 nm) were produced overseas.
The U.S. government has taken notice of the need to fortify America’s semiconductor supply chains through robust investments in U.S. chip production and innovation. In June 2021, the U.S. Senate passed the United States Innovation and Competition Act (USICA), broad competitiveness legislation that includes $52 billion to bolster domestic chip manufacturing, research, and design. The semiconductor industry has urged the U.S. House of Representatives to follow suit and send legislation to the President’s desk to be signed into law.
In 2021, semiconductors helped steady a world wobbled by COVID-19, and the industry’s future has never been brighter. As semiconductor innovation and global chip demand continue their inextricable rise, government and industry must work together to maintain America’s leadership in this foundational, indispensable technology.
Chips fighting Covid-19
As the “brains” of electronic devices, semiconductors have been crucial to the pandemic response and recovery of the global economy. They have provided display, wireless connectivity, processing, storage, power management, and other essential functions to a wide array of essential products, life-saving equipment and critical infrastructure. This includes healthcare and medical devices, telecommunications, energy, finance, transportation, agriculture, manufacturing, aerospace, and defence. Semiconductors also underpin the IT systems that have made remote work and school possible and have provided access to essential services across every domain, including medicine, finance, education, government, food distribution, and more.
Throughout this global pandemic, semiconductor-rich devices have become increasingly prevalent in developing solutions for numerous problems in the economic and public health sphere. The ability of semiconductors to drive performance in these critical sectors is tied to “Moore’s Law,” the observation that the capabilities of semiconductor chips will double roughly every two years, while the price goes down. Today, the most advanced microprocessors contain nearly 40 billion transistors.
Supporting the world through the pandemic in different ways
Semiconductors are an integral component of many medical devices used in hospitals and doctors’ offices today, including many devices that are critical to treating COVID-19 patients. Any medical device that can be plugged into an electric socket or has batteries depends on semiconductors to operate. Semiconductors provide functions such as operations control, data processing and storage, input and output management, sensing, wireless connectivity and power management. By enabling functions previously performed by non-semiconductor devices, semiconductors have often lowered costs and improved performance at the same time. This has proved critical to the COVID-19 response and improving health care in general. Two specific examples of semiconductors in medical devices helping in the COVID-19 fight are below.
- Portable ultrasound devices: In a hospital setting, the first line of detection for COVID-19 is identifying recognizable symptoms of the virus such as lung lesions. Quickly identifying this trait of the severe acute pneumonia associated with the virus has allowed doctors to treat afflicted patients without having to wait for tests on viral infection. This rapid response is possible with handheld ultrasound devices and temperature screening. These portable ultrasound devices have transitioned from utilizing piezoelectric crystals to semiconductors, greatly reducing the cost and improving performance. Now, due to the utilization of semiconductors, hospitals have access to vastly more affordable and efficient technologies to assess internal injuries in patients.
- Ventilators: These are utilized to treat patients with severe lung damage by assisting breathing and are controlled by semiconductor chips. The ventilator system uses semiconductor sensors and processors to monitor vital signals; determine the rate, volume, and amount of oxygen per breath; and accurately adjust oxygen levels according to the needs of the patient. These signals are read and interpreted by the machine’s semiconductor processors, which control the speed of the motor that translates to mechanized breathing to support a patient.
Public testing & tracing
Accurate and timely testing for COVID-19 was a vital part of assessing risk and determining treatment needs for the public, and semiconductor-enabled medical instruments helped advance testing efforts. Temperature screenings have become common for many workplaces and public facilities hoping to reopen their spaces to large amounts of people. This has been done using thermal cameras or non-contact forehead infrared thermometers that are enabled by semiconductors such as sensors and analog chips that translate real world phenomena such as temperature into digital readings.
Accelerating vaccine development
The pandemic rapidly generated data that researchers could use to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, but the sheer volume of this data made it difficult for scientists to find the specific data they needed. Fortunately, cutting-edge semiconductor-enabled technologies are streamlining the research process for present-day developers. For example, an engineer from a U.S. semiconductor company developed a platform called Deep Search, which uses natural language processing to mark-up research papers for more accurate discovery by search engines. Such technologies have helped scientists more rapidly develop vaccines to combat illness and disease such as COVID-19.
In addition to the work of individual technologists, cooperative research organizations have maximized vaccine development capacity by leveraging economies of scale. The COVID-19 High-Performance Computing (HPC) Consortium is a cooperative network designed to join the computing capacities and data collection of groups including industry, academia, federal agencies, and international government agencies. Early in the pandemic, semiconductor-enabled AI technology was deployed to help universities, companies, and clinics lower the time required to model and run different potential treatments from weeks to minutes. This significantly saved time and resources needed to develop hypothetical solutions in wetlabs.
Semiconductors underpin the IT infrastructure necessary for maintaining communication networks between colleagues and classmates outside of a traditional office and school setting. Firms that could conduct business remotely quickly reacted to the pandemic by shifting resources to digital communication, and the trend may be here to stay. With network usage growing between 30 to 50% for top providers, chip-enabled communication infrastructure has provided a lifeline to businesses and schools to carry on with remote work and school for many throughout the pandemic.
Delivery and transportation services are heavily dependent upon rapid communication capabilities. Some examples are the large fleets of truck drivers that operate long shifts and require coordinated support from fleet managers. Both pick-up and delivery options for store items, groceries, and restaurant food have been popular during the pandemic because mobile phone apps have made the transactions easy and safe. Grocery delivery companies utilize the ubiquity of smartphones to connect shoppers and customers, and these semiconductor-enabled services have seen a massive increase in application downloads and order quantities.
Remote healthcare and vulnerable populations
A critical aspect of safely reopening economic sectors has been protecting vulnerable populations such as the elderly, diabetic, and hard of hearing. Managing contact with these populations is the first step, but real-time monitoring systems have allowed physicians access to information regarding the daily status of their patients both in-house and remotely. Semiconductors have played an important role in this.
Remote healthcare, or telemedicine, has been necessary and highly beneficial during the COVID-19 crisis, and semiconductors are vital to IT infrastructure and to wearable medical technology for patient monitoring. This technology is especially helpful to the elderly population and patients with underlying health conditions.
People with diabetes are also at higher risk from the coronavirus. This risk can be mitigated with new semiconductor-rich technologies that make use of advanced sensors such as Continuous Glucose Monitoring (CGM) and wearable insulin pumps. CGM works by placing a sensor on your skin that transmits information to a device that will alert you if your blood sugar fluctuates greatly. Similarly, insulin pumps manage your glucose levels by releasing small doses of insulin according to your programmed
schedule. For diabetic COVID-19 patients, access to such technologies has helped to prevent life-endangering complications.
Semiconductors have also improved COVID-19 care for underserved and vulnerable populations in less well-known ways. Hard of hearing patients have been at a distinct disadvantage during the COVID-19 crisis, as medical masks degrade speech quality, making it difficult for hearing impaired patients to understand the advice given by health care professionals. A study in Hearing Review concluded, “Many of the people who have fallen victim to the virus have hearing loss, are unaccompanied by family members, are frail, have multiple chronic conditions and are likely without hearing assistance.” Hearing aids use semiconductors to filter, process, and amplify sound, all in a small package that fits discretely on or in the ear. To help patients acquire hearing aids, several hearing care firms have launched platforms to allow remote patient care. Other telemedicine platforms have seen a more than 700% increase in users in areas highly affected by the virus.
Source: Compiled from the report of Semiconductor Industry Association, U. S.