Making Silicon Chips
From Sand to Circuits
The surprising process behind Intel® technology
Silicon, the principal ingredient in beach sand, is a natural semiconductor and the most abundant element on Earth except for oxygen.
To make wafers, silicon is purified, melted, and cooled to form an ingot, which is then sliced into discs called wafers. Chips are built simultaneously in a grid formation on the wafer surface in a fabrication facility or “fab.”
A chip is a complex device that forms the brains of every computing device. While chips look flat, they are three-dimensional structures and may include as many as 30 layers of complex circuitry.
Chips are fabricated in batches of wafers in clean rooms that are thousands of times cleaner than hospital operating rooms.
Fab technicians wear special suits, nicknamed bunny suits, designed to keep contaminants such as lint and hair off the wafers during chip manufacturing.
The way a chip works is the result of how a chip’s transistors and gates are designed and the ultimate use of the chip. Design specifications that include chip size, number of transistors, testing, and production factors are used to create schematics—symbolic representations of the transistors and interconnections that control the flow of electricity though a chip.
Designers then make stencil-like patterns, called masks, of each layer. Designers use computer-aided design (CAD) workstations to perform comprehensive simulations and tests of the chip functions. To design, test, and fine-tune a chip and make it ready for fabrication takes hundreds of people.
Fabrication and Test
The "recipe" for making a chip varies depending on the chip’s proposed use. Making chips is a complex process requiring hundreds of precisely controlled steps that result in patterned layers of various materials built one on top of another.
A photolithographic "printing" process is used to form a chip’s multilayered transistors and interconnects (electrical circuits) on a wafer. Hundreds of identical processors are created in batches on a single silicon wafer.
Once all the layers are completed, a computer performs a process called wafer sort test. The testing ensures that the chips perform to design specifications.
After fabrication, it's time for packaging. The wafer is cut into individual pieces called die. The die is packaged between a substrate and a heat spreader to form a completed processor. The package protects the die and delivers critical power and electrical connections when placed directly into a computer circuit board or mobile device, such as a smartphone or tablet.
Intel makes chips that have many different applications and use a variety of packaging technologies. Intel packages undergo final testing for functionality, performance, and power. Chips are electrically coded, visually inspected, and packaged in protective shipping material for shipment to Intel customers and retail.
Learn more about the making of silicon chips at the Intel Museum’s permanent exhibit, "From Sand to Circuits," located in Intel’s Robert Noyce Building, Santa Clara, California.
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