December 6, 2022

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The science and geopolitics of the chip. History of an object we use every day / 02

Microchips originated in America, on the East Coast, at the end of World War II, and then were produced in various countries around the world. But if this was in the early decades Basically a western storyfrom the 1970s onwards in the field of microelectronics, he introduced many other champions who energize the competition on a scientific, economic and geopolitical level.

we say Microchip historymoving between geopolitics, science, environment and economic issues with Alessandro PacagnellaPhysicist and Professor of Electronics in the Department of Information Engineering, H David BuriganaHistorian, Department of Political Science, Law and International Studies at the University of Padua. We do this from the halls of two museums of the University of Padua, the Museum of Geography and the Museum of Physics, which has allowed us to use their spaces and their collections as a backdrop and as a complement to the story we want to tell.

In this second episode, we start from the American commitment, summarized in a strategic document written by Vannevar Bush The American president immediately after World War II. A wartime hero, Bush was appointed in charge of the National Defense Research Committee in 1940, and later appointed director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development. science development”) and thus became one of the principal scientists in the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb. At the end of the war, Vannevar Bush wrote a report for the United States government entitled Science, the infinite frontierin which it is specifiedInvesting in scientific and technological research Key to the democratic and economic development of the United States. The American strategy is to support both universities and companies in the field of research, leaving great freedom of choice and also a large role in the market, but at the same time involving prominent academic experts in the planning. Experts who understand that future American leadership must be based precisely on the development of science and technology.

The Soviet Union and the development of its electronic devices

At the same time, the search also continues beyond the curtain. The Soviet Union had its own line of development in the electromechanical field, which began in the 1930s. However, it cannot be denied that the period of momentum is precisely the global struggle during which there are many contacts and exchanges also with the Western scientific-technological world, in particular with the United States, to which the Soviet Union belonged. An ally in an anti-Nazi key.

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start Therefore, since the fifties of the last century, the USSR has intensively developed the electronic sector, where its goal and field of work is the military field and not the commercial field. To do this, he presses the development of computers and arrives at very important results, which he also witnessed Puran programIt began in the late 1970s in response to the design and construction of the US Space Shuttles, seen as dangerous in the context of the Cold War. After several test flights, Buran in 1988 departed from Baikonur and made a full orbital flight, unmanned, and landed perfectly.

The success of this trip, David Burigana confirms in this second episode, shows that the Soviet Union has already developed Highly safe electronic components. Burigana also wants to dispel the myth. “It is not true that the curtain was impenetrable – he says – because there were areas of exchange where the scientific community met. Czechoslovakia, for example, was under Soviet control but grafted into whole Europe. And there, in this osmotic center, it was like that An ongoing intellectual and scientific exchange. Thanks to these contacts, the scientific and technological world was well aware that the miniaturization and development of electronic technologies was also happening at a good pace in the Soviet world.

Who are the heroes of today?

Packaging assemblers are usually found in the Far East. – explain Alessandro Pacagnella Those that manage the entire production cycle are scattered among The United States, South Korea, Japan and other places. then there pure playersThose who only do one thing. Among these, a typical case is the case Taiwan With companies specializing in the production of microchips. Or again the United States with companies that deal only with design and planning.” Currently in Europe there are few active companies. One of the sectors in which there isEurope We hope that the potential for growth is precisely design rather than production. Obviously, as for other sectors, also for microelectronics, there is a lot of interest now in the war situation in Ukraine, a country rich not so much in the basic components of basic electronics, those that go into chips. However, Ukraine is one of the most important producers of neon, and neon is essential for laser production which in turn is essential at some stages of the microchip production chain. And so the war particularly excites small businesses that risk finding themselves without this important ingredient, creating a somewhat unexpected bottleneck.

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“There is a key point called technological sovereignty – adds Pacanella – which other countries have already focused their attention on. One for all, ChinaAnd it is precisely in order to deal with these powerful topics that Europe approved the chip law in February, which we also wrote here (to learn more: European Microchip Law: The European Microchip Race). Basically, it is EU chips law It translates into an investment of about forty billion euros to be used not for the benefit of individual semiconductor manufacturing industries but for the benefit of an entire European industrial and research ecosystem that would allow Europe to be less dependent on technologies currently being produced in Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, China and the United States.

In all this we have already said, China plays a major role. Since the 1980s, China has been investing in this sector by creating a very prosperous industry. It is clear that the Asian giant has an interest in countering the American presence in the East, which is also there and reinforced by its support and policies Cooperation between the United States and Taiwan. It is clear that cooperation is not limited to market issues but represents, more so in the current geopolitical context and relations between great powers, a potentially very controversial area.

Finally, another electronics giant, very clear in the minds of those who were young people in the 80s and 90s, because in those years it was the state that brought us all the electronic entertainment products that we’ve come to love, Japan. A country that is not much talked about now on a global scale, but which has given a very strong development to this sector since the eighties. Part of his success, he claims David Burigana, because of its ability to participate very well in the market and in the western context of those years. However, the 2008 crisis also hit Japan, and today there is no doubt that the position of this country is not very prominent in the microelectronics sector, where the leading role is played precisely by other Asian players.

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In space and at the bottom of the sea

However, talking about the geopolitics of microchips is not just about talking about countries. In fact, broadening the gaze also means on those areas, and those areas that The state is not which is currently on it enormous international interests. The sea floor, and space, for example. or polar regions. The Administration of Research in Antarctica and the International Space Station represent two cases of intensive work in the context of international law for the proper management and exploitation of resources and for the establishment of rules that allow us to work and cooperate and thus common goals. Currently, however, in cases of pole exploration or space exploration, we are talking about contexts that are more structured for research purposes.

On the other hand, the central issue of microelectronics is material control, for example rare lands Based on other items Essential for building the various components of the production chain. Here there are no rules and frameworks to understand how to agree. For example, we know that the ocean floor is rich in these elements. Understand and agree on how to manage it internally Having a common international framework of standards and practices is a real challengewhich is a challenge that you should start addressing right away as well Avoid speculation and unsustainable practices.

The first episode of this series can be viewed here:

The science and geopolitics of the chip. History of an object we use every day / 01