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On the Earth's surface, we look back to an ultimately high tech evolution of computer hardware and according integrated circuit manufacturing appliances.

The knowledge required to build robust modern CPUs and generally computer chips (on Earth) is very complex, rare and unique. possibly in situ production also for these industries will be one of mostly postponed but nevertheless crucial development steps in the expansion of humanity in the Solar system and beyond, if ever.

Will the dawn of in situ extraterrestrial computer hardware manufacturing ever happen? If not, why?

If yes, which economical, or other conditions will require our descendants to start consider that as well? (otherwise, always possible to mine some asteroids for relevant minerals and send them to Earth for production in exchange for some good old organic stuff and yes, computer chips).

Long-term risk: Earth suffers those problems which motivate Elon to move away => no more chips production facilities, no knowledge to rebuild them. Game over.

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    $\begingroup$ "no knowledge to rebuild them" so long as you also assume that no future society will ever attempt to educate itself to the point where semiconductor engineering becomes practical again, of course. $\endgroup$ Feb 17, 2020 at 15:14
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    $\begingroup$ Actually, the knowledge to make the chips is neither rare nor complex. What is rare and complex is the knowledge to design them, and the knowledge to prepare the <stuff> needed by the machines which make them, and the knowledge to design and make those machines. Once the machines are in place, and the <stuff> required by those machines is in place, actually making the chips is a much less complex proposition. (The <stuff> includes masks, programs for the machine tools etc.) And we do teach students to design (simple) chips; at least at the Bucharest Polithenica University they do. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 17, 2020 at 15:14
  • $\begingroup$ @StarfishPrime we are talking about semiconductor engineering in space $\endgroup$
    – J. Doe
    Feb 17, 2020 at 15:15
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP you will need to build the machines in space, too, so that also work in space as required. And chips must work in space well enough, too. $\endgroup$
    – J. Doe
    Feb 17, 2020 at 15:16
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    $\begingroup$ Also, you haven't explicitly said "semiconductor engineering in spaaaaaace" in your question. If you want it in free fall as opposed to on other planetary surfaces, you should probably make that clear. $\endgroup$ Feb 17, 2020 at 15:18

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Making IC chips with SSI and MSI technology from the 1960 and early 1970 would be fairly easy. The features were relatively large, the equipment needed was not terribly difficult or expensive to build, and the effects of stray radiation would be minimal due to the size of the features.

SSI had about 10 to 100 components like transistors, capacitors, or resistors per chip. MSI had up to 300 per chip.

More modern IC are much more difficult to make. The features are extremely small requiring very difficult to build and maintain machinery and a single radiation particle would cause significant damage. Still with enough investment it could be done.

In some respects it would be better to do this in orbit. You would have better optics for the photolithography without gravity distorting lens. Also many of the chemicals used are very dangerous which is why you seldom find IC manufacturing near large cities.

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It won't be a good idea to manufacture chips in free fall.

Photolithography is a rather delicate process, and poses quite some challenges on the thermal management of the exposed wafer.

  • Operating in a vacuum isn't feasible: your wafer will get too hot and you won't be able to manage a good overlay between the process layers. Meaning that your device will be barely good to be dumped.
  • You can seal up the whole fab and operate in an atmosphere, but you will still miss the buoyancy due to the free fall regime.
  • If you are operating in a pressurized environment in free fall, you can try to use fans to move the heat around. But that would lower your throughput and be a significant drawback with respect to planet based manufacture. Don't forget that water is way more effective than gas at removing heat.

Additional issue: cosmic radiation will be a hassle and a constant threat to your devices. Shielding it will significantly impact the design of your plant.

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  • $\begingroup$ so it looks like they will have to build fabs on planetary surfaces either low gravity. Is there a minimum required gravity? $\endgroup$
    – J. Doe
    Feb 17, 2020 at 17:16
  • $\begingroup$ @J.Doe or just use habitats/factories with artificial gravity $\endgroup$
    – Dragongeek
    Feb 17, 2020 at 18:09

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