This week, the Biden administration is unveiling details of its plans to spend some $50 billion to support the domestic semiconductor industry. It’s being called one of the most significant investments in any U.S. industry in half a century. It’s both an investment in American manufacturing and a fresh salvo in the country’s increasingly heated global economic competition with China.
All of which makes this week’s episode of “No Dumb Questions” particularly relevant and important — namely, “What is a semiconductor?”
As with many of the questions we ask in this series, you may feel you should know the answer — or perhaps, that you kind of know the answer. Last month, Grid’s Christian Thorsberg gave us the scientific meat-and-potatoes answer — involving “conductors” and “insulators” and the remarkable rate at which “semiconductors are being made smaller and smaller so as to fit as many as possible on the microprocessing chips that control computers.”
In this week’s video, Grid’s Science Reporter Dan Vergano makes clear that there are actually several answers to the question. Beyond the technical matter, there’s the related issue of where they are found (in virtually every electronic gadget, home appliance or vehicle that is produced these days — anything with the adjective “smart” attached to it), and then there are the answers that go to why they matter so much right now. And why the Biden administration believes that semiconductors warrant that enormous investment.
As Vergano notes, semiconductor manufacturing represents both a hugely significant global industry and a national security dilemma for the United States. The latter has to do with where the majority of semiconductors are made (in Taiwan, and increasingly, in mainland China), and with the information that can be stored on each tiny, wafer-thin chip. As Vergano puts it, the U.S. is trying to avoid dependence on an adversary (China) or potential war zone (Taiwan) for “the things in our cruise missiles, our tanks and other heavy weaponry.”
So — what’s a semiconductor? Not a dumb question at all. Watch and listen to Dan Vergano’s answers here:
We’d love to hear from you with other ideas for the series. We like to think there are no “dumb questions”; or, put differently, that there’s almost nothing out there in the world of news and information that couldn’t use a little more clarity and context in terms of the answers. We also know that we have really smart readers, and that even the smartest among them can’t be expected to have every shred of important context or background on all the events that are roiling the world at any given moment. Send your ideas and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.