This 22-year-old boy builds chips in his parents’ garage


Sam Zeloof completed this homemade computer chip with 1,200 transistors, seen under a magnifying glass, in August 2021.
Enlarge / Sam Zeloof completed this homemade computer chip with 1,200 transistors, seen under a magnifying glass, in August 2021.

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In August, chipmaker Intel revealed new details about its plan to build a “mega factory” on US soil, a $100 billion factory where 10,000 workers will make a new generation of powerful processors with billions of transistors. The same month, Sam Zeloof, 22, announced his own semiconductor milestone. He did it alone in his family’s garage in New Jersey, about 30 miles from where the first transistor was made at Bell Labs in 1947.

Using a collection of salvaged and homemade equipment, Zeloof produced a chip with 1,200 transistors. He had cut silicon wafers, patterned them into microscopic designs using ultraviolet light, and dipped them in acid by hand, documenting the process. in Youtube Y your blog. “Maybe it’s overconfidence, but I have the mindset that another human figured it out, so I can too, even if it takes longer,” he says.

Zeloof’s chip was his second. He did the first, much smaller, high school senior in 2018; he started making individual transistors a year earlier. His chips lag behind Intel’s by technological eons, but Zeloof only half-jokingly argues that he is progressing faster than the semiconductor industry in its early days. His second chip has 200 times as many transistors as his first, a growth rate that outpaces Moore’s law, the rule-of-thumb coined by an Intel co-founder that says the number of transistors on a chip doubles roughly every two years. .

Zeloof now hopes to match the scale of Intel’s groundbreaking 1971 4004 chip, the first commercial microprocessor, which had 2,300 transistors and was used in calculators and other business machines. In December, he started working at a interim circuit design that can perform simple addition.

Zeloof says that making it easier to manipulate semiconductors would encourage new ideas in technology.
Enlarge / Zeloof says that making it easier to manipulate semiconductors would encourage new ideas in technology.

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Outside Zeloof’s garage, the pandemic has triggered a global shortage of semiconductors, hampering the supply of auto products to game consoles. That inspired a new interest from policymakers in rebuild US capacity to produce its own computer chips, after decades of offshoring.

Garage-built chips aren’t meant to power your PlayStation, but Zeloof says his unusual hobby has convinced him that society would benefit if chipmaking became more accessible to inventors without multimillion-dollar budgets. “That really high barrier to entry will make you super risk-averse, and that’s bad for innovation,” says Zeloof.

Zeloof started making his own chips when he was a junior in high school in 2016. He was impressed by inventor and entrepreneur Jeri Ellsworth’s YouTube videos in which she made his own thumb-sized transistors, in a process that included cut-out vinyl decal templates and a bottle of rust stain remover. Zeloof set out to replicate Ellsworth’s project and take what seemed to him to be the next logical step: moving from solitary transistors to integrated circuits, a leap that historically took about a decade. “He took a quantum leap further,” says Ellsworth, now CEO of an augmented reality startup called tilt five. “There is tremendous value in reminding the world that these industries that seem so out of reach started in a more modest place, and you can do it yourself.”

The manufacture of computer chips is sometimes described as the most difficult and precise manufacturing process in the world. When Zeloof started blogging about his goals for the project, some industry insiders emailed him to say it was impossible. “Honestly, the reason I did it was because I thought it would be fun,” he says. “I wanted to make a statement that we should be more careful when we hear that something is impossible.”

Zeloof’s family was supportive but also cautious. His father asked a semiconductor engineer he knew to give him some safety tips. “My first reaction was that you couldn’t do it. This is a garage,” says Mark Rothman, who has spent 40 years in chip engineering and now works at a company that makes OLED display technology. Rothman’s initial reaction softened as he saw Zeloof’s progress. “He has done things that he would never have thought people could do.”

Zeloof’s project involves both history and engineering. Modern chip manufacturing takes place in facilities whose expensive HVAC systems remove all traces of dust that could affect their operation. billions of dollars worth of machinery. Zeloof couldn’t match those techniques, so he read patents and textbooks from the 1960s and 1970s, when engineers at pioneering companies like Fairchild Semiconductor made chips on ordinary workbenches. They describe methods using X-Act blades, tape and some beakers, not ‘We have this $10 million machine the size of a room,’” says Zeloof.

Zeloof also had to stock his lab with old equipment. On eBay and other auction sites, he found a ready supply of bargain equipment from the 1970s and 1980s once owned by California tech companies that have since gone out of business. Much of the equipment required repair, but the old machines are easier to manipulate than modern laboratory machinery. One of Zeloof’s best finds was a broken electron microscope that cost $250,000 in the early 1990s; he bought it for $1,000 and had it repaired. You use it to inspect your chips for faults as well as the nanostructures in butterfly wings.




arstechnica.com

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