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LED Chip Manufacturing Explosion Propels SAFC Hitech

At the intersection between the key logic, flat-panel display and LED industries, the former Epichem is proving to be a fantastic investment for Sigma-Aldrich. Andy Extance visited the unit's Bromborough, UK, factory to quiz Epichem founder Barry Leese on SAFC Hitech's progress.

Barry Leese, president of SAFC Hitech and founder of the Epichem business that now forms its core, says that current owner Sigma-Aldrich came onboard for chemicals aimed at future silicon technology. However, sales of trimethylgallium (TMG), the crucial LED chemical precursor, have been driven up by industry expansion since the deal went through in February 2007. Consequently, SAFC Hitech s revenues have surged by 26% from 2007, and Leese predicts that they will swell by another 15% into 2009.

SAFC Hitech is something of a bellwether for the III-V industry, a stage along from epitaxy equipment makers like Aixtron and Veeco. It is the next step for new LED makers in making a choice of metalorganic precursors to balance expense and quality of products made with a given system. "Our role has been to advise the customer which chemicals – out of thousands offered by SAFC – are likely to be successful," Leese explained.

SAFC Hitech s sales figures show that TMG demand is rising thanks to recently purchased MOCVD reactors being brought online to manufacture GaN and AlGaInP LEDs. Leese also believes that what his company is seeing corroborates Aixtron CEO Paul Hyland s opinion that the ranks of LED makers are being joined by new entrants from the wider semiconductor community.

Publicly, it seems that the most advanced of these companies are flat-panel display makers like AU Optronics and Chi Mei Optoelectronics. SAFC Hitech is already well known to such LCD companies as a supplier of BCl3 gas – its largest volume product – which is used as an etchant for aluminum interconnects. Although SAFC Hitech shifts up to 200 tons of BCl3 annually, TMG brings in greater revenues for a total volume in the region of just three tons.

Silicon semiconductor players may not be far behind the LCD firms, and Leese sees major household electronic brands establishing their own LED manufacturing operations. He feels that these trends are combining to draw more equipment suppliers into competing in the MOCVD equipment market.

The possible downside to this influx is that more powerful customers are likely to demand that SAFC Hitech lowers the prices for starting materials. "The whole semiconductor industry has always been about driving prices down," Leese said. "We have to explain to them that we buy in gallium metal and indium. We re never going to get the prices that are associated with silicon precursors."

This is where SAFC Hitech s EpiFill liquid and EpiVapor bulk reagent delivery systems come in. The continuous flow of precursors that these tools offer can cut the costly MOCVD system downtime associated with standalone small-scale bubblers. Where bubblers are used – including in conjunction with the bulk systems – the company s capacitance-based EpiSensor also helps by accurately measuring the level of precursor that is remaining. "There s only so far you can go in reducing the price of chemicals, so we re looking at improving the delivery to make it cheaper," Leese explained.

Epichem has long had these systems ready for the kind of market expansion that SAFC Hitech is now seeing. "We developed it around the time of the telecom bubble for the III-V industry, but there wasn t much interest. We ve actually sold a few to silicon manufacturers for trimethylaluminum delivery."

Now Leese hopes that companies moving into very-large-scale manufacturing will see the value of its systems for volume LED epiwafer fabrication. However, he concedes that it will take more TMG output to support the transition to high volumes.

"Our biggest challenge over the next year or so will be moving LEDs from a cottage industry to larger-scale manufacturing and adding the capacity to serve it," Leese predicted. Given the geographical focus of the market expansion in Asia, SAFC Hitech is planning an expansion of facilities for TMG production in Taiwan. This is likely to demand that its site moves from a single floor at its current Kaohsiung location to a specially built facility.

The difficulty of gaining the finance needed for investments like this played a big part in the decision to sell Epichem to Sigma-Aldrich. When a previous capacity expansion was needed in 2005, Intel Capital took a 15% stake in Epichem. As Intel and Epichem have been working together since 2003 on hafnium precursors for high-k dielectric gates, Leese expected the relationship to be cordial. However, when the next stage of expansion reared its head, the terms on offer put him off asking for more.

"I needed more money and Intel was going to take an arm and a leg in return for further investment," he joked. "Sigma-Aldrich had been knocking on the door for some time prior to that and I told them to go away." This time Leese took the chance to visit the chemical giant s St. Louis, MO, headquarters and was impressed by the comparatively relaxed style of management. Both parties appear to be on the same wavelength, with Sigma-Aldrich understanding the importance of Leese s knowledge of the semiconductor industry to the success of SAFC Hitech.

Intertwined with this knowledge are the existing relationships that Epichem has nurtured, and in that regard Sigma-Aldrich has taken a shortcut on the otherwise long road to becoming a supplier for Intel. There Epichem is supplying precursors for high-k materials used in atomic layer deposition to produce dielectrics for the latest 45 nm scale production processes. Although Intel s HfO2-gated Penryn technology is in production – with Intel Core 2 Extreme processors even being described in marketing literature as hafnium-infused – SAFC Hitech says that its materials are only just entering the development stage. This is despite the two companies being engaged in conference calls every Friday for the past five years, and the discussions now turning to zirconium as a successor to hafnium.

The link between silicon and compounds, and beyond to other manufacturing, has served Epichem and SAFC Hitech well down the years. Epichem started in 1983 as a silane maker and then led the development of TMG. Having survived the tech bubble, Leese is now wondering which industry will be the next one – with solar being at the center of his worries. However, as it rides the wave of LED expansions and looks ahead to increasingly varied material demands from logic, the mood at SAFC Hitech is definitely one of optimism.


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