Helium is a Critical Part of the Electronics Supply Chain

Experts in the electronics industry know that helium is a critical part of making the components that bring us the internet, smartphones, home healthcare, and almost any of the modern electronic technology conveniences that we take for granted today.

The Electronics Supply Chain

There was $1.42 trillion (yes trillion) worth of electronic systems manufactured in 2015.  This includes the gadgets that consumer use constantly – smartphones, tablets, PCs – as well as industrial, medical, automotive, and defense electronics.  This represents a wide range of applications, but at the heart of all of them are semiconductor chips.

If you take apart any gadget, you will find thin rectangular items that measure a fraction of an inch on each side.  These are the semiconductor chips that do the computing, storage, and communication functions that all of these products need.  The vast majority of these are made with silicon, the most common semiconductor material, with properties ideally suited to these functions.  To be able to do that, though, silicon needs to go through extensive processing to create the specific circuitry for each chip.  This is where helium comes in.

Helium in the Semiconductor Manufacturing Process

The processing of silicon into functioning chips is done in a fabrication facility (“fab”) with expensive equipment and ultra-clean conditions.  Modern fabs cost billions of dollars, and each of the many pieces of equipment costs millions, so it is important to have the processing running efficiently to make use of that investment.  Helium serves multiple functions in these processes.

Helium has several properties that are leveraged in the semiconductor manufacturing process.  Most importantly, it is an “inert” gas, meaning that it does not react with other elements.  This makes it ideal as the environment for the chemical reactions that take place during the processing.  Many of these are gas- or liquid-based, so having an inert gas around the silicon prevents any unwanted reactions.

Helium also has a high thermal conductivity, meaning that it conducts heat away effectively.  This helps to control the temperature of the silicon during these processes.  This is increasingly important as the dimensions of the circuitry on the silicon continue to shrink.  It would be impossible to drive this miniaturization without the process control that helium provides.

Finally, helium is used because of its cooling properties.  It is a liquid at extremely low temperatures, which allows it to cool magnets to a temperature that optimizes their properties.  The magnets are used in some types of semiconductor equipment, as well as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) systems and other medical applications.

Helium and The Bottom Line

The semiconductor industry generated $353B of revenue in 2015, with 787 billion units shipped.  Microprocessors – the main semiconductor device for computing – represented $60B, and memory chips — which store your music and run your games — were $72B.  All of this represents an enormous investment by some of the biggest companies in the world, and all of it hinges on materials such as Helium.  With the ever-growing demand for electronic devices, any critical piece of the supply chain can represent an excellent opportunity for investors.