This 22-year-old makes chips in his parents’ garage

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Sam Zeloof completed this homemade computer chip with 1200 transistors under a magnifying glass in August 2021.
enlarge / Sam Zeloof completed this homemade computer chip with 1200 transistors under a magnifying glass in August 2021.

Sankang

In August, chipmaker Intel revealed new details of its plans to build a “gigafactory” on U.S. soil, a $100 billion factory that will have 10,000 workers producing a new generation of powerful machines with billions of transistors. processor. That same month, 22-year-old Sam Zeloof announced his semiconductor milestone. It was done alone in his home’s New Jersey garage, about 30 miles from where Bell Labs made the first transistor in 1947.

Zeloof made a chip with 1,200 transistors using a series of recycled home-made equipment. He sliced ​​silicon wafers into thin slices, patterned them with ultraviolet light in microscopic designs, and then hand-dipped them in acid, documenting the process on YouTube and his blog. “Maybe it’s overconfidence, but my mindset is someone else will figure it out, so I can too, even if it might take longer,” he said.

Zeloof’s chip is his second. In 2018, he made his first much smaller piece out of high school; the year before that, he started making individual transistors. His chips are technically behind Intel, but Zeloof argues only half-jokingly that his progress is faster than the early days of the semiconductor industry. His second chip has 200 times as many transistors as his first, a growth rate that exceeds Moore’s Law, a rule of thumb coined by the Intel co-founder that the number of transistors on a chip doubles roughly every two years. some time.

Zeloof now hopes to match the size of Intel’s groundbreaking 1971 4004 chip, the first commercial microprocessor with 2,300 transistors used in calculators and other business machines. In December, he started working on a Temporary circuit design Simple addition can be performed.

Making it easier to tinker with semiconductors will spur new ideas in tech, Zeloof said.
enlarge / Making it easier to tinker with semiconductors will spur new ideas in tech, Zeloof said.

Sankang

Outside Zeloof’s garage, the pandemic has sparked a global shortage of semiconductors, crippling supplies of products from cars to game consoles. After decades of offshoring, it has sparked renewed interest among policymakers in rebuilding America’s ability to produce its own computer chips.

Garage-made chips won’t power your PlayStation, but Zeloof says his unusual hobby has led him to believe that society would benefit by making chipmaking more accessible to inventors without a multi-million dollar budget. “Such a high barrier to entry makes you extremely risk-averse, which is bad for innovation,” Zeloof said.

In 2016, during his junior year of high school, Zeloof started making his own chips. Inventor and entrepreneur Jeri Ellsworth impressed him with a YouTube video in which she made her own thumb-sized transistor, which included stencil cuts from vinyl decals and a bottle of rust remover. Zeloof set out to replicate Ellsworth’s project and take what he thought was the logical next step: going from an isolated transistor to an integrated circuit, which historically took about a decade. Ellsworth, now the CEO of an augmented reality startup called Tilt Five, said: “He’s taking it a big step forward.” “Reminding the world that these seemingly out of reach industries are beginning It’s very valuable in a gentler place, and you can do it yourself.”

Computer chip manufacturing is sometimes described as the most difficult and precise manufacturing process in the world. When Zeloof started blogging about his project goals, some industry experts emailed him to tell him it wasn’t possible. “Honestly, the reason for this is because I think it’s fun,” he said. “I want to state that we should be more careful when we hear about the impossible.”

Zeloof’s family is supportive but cautious. His father asked a semiconductor engineer he knew for some safety advice. “My first reaction is you can’t do it. It’s a garage,” said Mark Rothman, who has worked in chip engineering for 40 years and now works at a company that makes technology for OLED screens. Seeing Zeloff’s progress, Rothman’s initial reaction softened. “He did things I never thought people would do.”

Zeloof’s projects involve history and engineering. Modern chip manufacturing takes place in facilities where its expensive HVAC systems remove all the dust that could affect its multibillion-dollar machines. Zeloof couldn’t match the technologies, so he read patents and textbooks from the 1960s and 1970s, when engineers at pioneering companies like Fairchild were building chips on common benches. “They describe using an X-Acto blade and tape and some beakers instead of ‘we have this $10 million room-sized machine,'” Zeloof said.

Zeloof also had to outfit his lab with vintage equipment. On eBay and other auction sites, he found cheap chipping equipment from the 1970s and 1980s that once belonged to the then-defunct California technology company. A lot of equipment needs to be repaired, but older machines are easier to tinker with than modern lab machines. One of Zeloof’s best finds was a broken electron microscope that was worth $250,000 in the early ’90s; he bought it for $1,000 and repaired it. He uses it to check his chips for defects, as well as the nanostructures on butterfly wings.




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