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Opportunities for the UK to become a global leader in compound semiconductors

Martin McHugh, Chief Executive Officer

Martin McHugh, Chief Executive Officer | Compound Semiconductor Applications Catapult

4 min read Partner content

With the global compound semiconductor market projected to grow exponentially, the UK has the chance to become a global leader in this transformative technology. By fostering collaboration, building resilient supply chains, supporting SMEs, and investing in advanced packaging, the UK can harness the full potential of compound semiconductors and secure its position at the forefront of technological innovation.

When the government published its National Semiconductor Strategy in May, it identified three areas of ‘enormous strength’ in which the UK holds a strategic advantage.

One of these areas was compound semiconductors.

Compound semiconductors—semiconductors that are made from two or more materials instead of one— are currently transforming the technology we use today and shaping the technologies we will use tomorrow.

The global compound semiconductor market is set to grow from $67 billion to $350 billion by 2030 and we believe the UK can play a significant role in this growth and become a global leader in the technology.

Shaping future technology

Compound semiconductors are already playing a significant role in our sustainability journey to Net Zero.

Their superior performance at high voltages is helping to increase the range, and speed up the charging, of electric vehicles.

Being able to operate at higher frequencies means compound semiconductors are ideal for high-speed communications such as 5G and 6G, creating more efficient and less energy intensive telecoms networks.

As we consume more data through our smartphones and machines become more connected through the Internet of Things, compound semiconductors will also help alleviate the huge amounts of energy consumed by data centres.

This is significant as ICT (Information and Communications Technology) networks are projected to consume around 21% of total global electricity usage by 2030.

Creating new supply chains across the UK

Here in the UK, we have significant expertise at every stage of the compound semiconductor lifecycle, from academic research through to wafer producers, fabrication plants, packaging houses and the Tier 1 organisations who apply the technology.

This expertise is spread right across the country, with clusters of activity in South Wales, Bristol, Cambridge, the North East, Northern Ireland, and Scotland.

The National Semiconductor Strategy lays out a plan to grow each part of the industry and enable businesses across the UK to scale up.

At the Compound Semiconductor Applications (CSA) Catapult, we’re helping to realise this vision by bringing UK expertise together to support industry and create new supply chains for products and applications that use compound semiconductor technology.

We are particularly focussed on technologies that will lead us to our Net Zero goals and form part of our future telecommunications networks.

An example of this collaboration is our involvement in the @FutureBEV project where, together with the University of Warwick, Custom Interconnect, Lyra Electronics and BMW, we are helping to improve efficiency, reduce the weight and lower the CO₂ emissions of BMW’s future electric vehicles.

The National Semiconductor Strategy talks at length about building ‘resilient supply chains’ that can withstand economic and geopolitical shocks such as a global pandemic.

Whilst many UK businesses are reliant on compound semiconductor imports from other countries—and the government is right to highlight the need to forge safe and secure international partnerships—the UK is also developing its own end-to-end supply chains that need equal support and investment.

By supporting more collaborative research and development programmes such as the @FutureBEV project, we can create new supply chains that foster innovation and investment and level-up our communities through the creation of highly skilled and well-paid jobs.

Supporting scale up for SMEs

It is also imperative that the UK supports the thriving network of SMEs and spinouts that are emerging from our world-leading universities and developing the next generation of compound semiconductor technologies.

When we speak to these businesses, one of the major hurdles they face is scale-up. The compound semiconductor industry is highly capital intensive and taking an idea from prototype to mass market can be a long and expensive process, which is acknowledged in National Semiconductor Strategy.

Innovation through integration

In addition to working quicker, we must also work smarter.

An area in which the UK and CSA Catapult excels is advanced packaging—a fundamental part of the compound semiconductor production process where the chip is encased to protect it and connect it to a circuit board.

We are particularly good at a process known as hybrid or heterogeneous integration, where multiple chips are combined into a single package, which leads to more cost-effective and reliable compound semiconductor device packages and intelligent devices using quantum and AI.

Investing in the UK’s world-leading advanced packaging capability, as acknowledged in the National Semiconductor Strategy, would allow researchers to experiment with novel techniques and materials and would also help SMEs to prototype their designs.

The opportunities to grow the UK economy using our expertise in compound semiconductors are there for the taking.

We are in the enviable position of being at the forefront of a technology that is set to transform our lives, from meeting our Net Zero goals to realising the benefits of quantum technology, integrated photonics and AI.

In the coming years, compound semiconductors will have the potential to replicate the revolutionary impact that silicon had in the 1960s—it is crucial the UK stays at the helm.


Find out more about CSA Catapult here or email us at hello@csa.catapult.org.uk

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