Neon, chips and Ukraine
The author is a chair professor of history and philosophy in the science department at the University of Cambridge.
U.S. President Joe Biden immediately headed to a chip production facility of Samsung Electronics upon arriving in South Korea for a visit last month. The United States is a major consumer of the microchips that power smartphones, computer servers and data centers, and the chips are largely produced in South Korea.
The integrated circuit (IC) microchip was first produced in the U.S. in 1958, when South Korea was an impoverished country. Korea has since become a chip powerhouse, awing the American president. As a major consumer of computers and smartphones and other electronics that rely on microchips, the U.S. needs to sustain an amicable relationship with South Korea and Taiwan, who are responsible for majority of global chip supply. Although the U.S. has the technology, it cannot produce chips at cost-effective prices.
The protracted war in Ukraine has raised concerns about microchip supply. Russia and Ukraine do not produce chips, but a whopping 70 percent of neon — the odorless gas necessary for wafer fabrication — has been supplied by Ukraine. Although neon gas may sound unfamiliar, neon signs that light up the night are commonly known. When lit up in tube, neon gas discharges a reddish and orange glow. The red crosses that light up across Seoul at night are illuminated with neon.
Although many know by now that Ukraine is major producer of flour and sunflower oil and other food products, not many are aware that the country is a major producer of neon. It is a wonder why so much neon comes from one country. Neon is in the air, which is composed mostly of nitrogen and oxygen — and the rest in is carbon dioxide, argon, neon and xenon. As the rest causes little, if any, chemical reaction, they stayed unknown to humans for a long time. Unlike minerals that are stocked in certain regions, neon could be produced anywhere in the world as it can be extracted from the air. But why is the world heavily reliant on Ukraine now?
Long story short, neon gas is a by-product of steelmaking. Steel mills use extraordinarily hot furnaces to melt ores. But the fire cannot use the common air as it needs a higher density of oxygen. Since large steel mills built during the former Soviet Union era was equipped with facilities that can remove nitrogen and capture oxygen, neon also can be separated through the process. Such old-fashioned steel mills no longer exist in western countries. But they are still active in Russia and Ukraine. Ukraine has sophisticated the neon purifying technology. Since it is not used much at home, its output is mostly exported. As it turns out, Mariupol — home to major steel mills in Ukraine and a major source of neon production for export — has been pounded by Russian shelling.
How neon relates to chipmaking is also complicated. Chip making requires a highly precise laser to etch tiny delicate patterns onto the silicon wafer in which to plant tiny integrated circuits. Since chips are extremely intricate, the laser must use a certain wavelength of light. Here, neon serves as a key component to facilitate the chip production process. When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, neon gas prices jumped six-fold. Due to the suspension of neon production from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, concerns arose over the possible disruption of neon supply.
Science, technology and mankind are interconnected. Their reliance stretches in many directions, although it is hard to detect in peacetime. The Ukraine war’s impact on chip making highlighted the susceptibility of the global supply chain. Korean chipmakers and government say that the country does not have to rely on Ukraine for its chip-grade neon. I hope that is true.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.