Together Stronger. That’s the motto of the Welsh football team. But you can also apply that principle to the hi-tech world of compound semiconductors.
Here in Wales, we’ve created a cluster of compound semiconductor expertise that is truly world-class. Wales-based companies are pioneering the technology that’s already at the heart of devices we all use every day – like smart phones and cars – and is essential to emerging fields such as AI, robotics and autonomous vehicles.
The cluster has attracted some of the globe’s pioneers in the technology, who work collaboratively, supported by the formidable brainpower of our universities, to drive forward new ideas and products all along the supply chain.
That’s what persuaded MicroLink Devices UK to join this elite group, as Director Steve Whitby explains: “When I looked at the rest of the UK there isn’t a compound semiconductor cluster anywhere else. The cluster has the capability, the universities have the academia. So it was a simple conclusion to move to Wales.”
“The Welsh Government has been very, very supportive. They’re ‘open-door’, they listen, they communicate, they engage with you and they really do support you, not just purely in setting up the business, but actually providing the marketing and branding, not just in the UK but overseas.”
Steve has worked in the military, government, utilities and petrochemicals markets, both in the UK and internationally. At the helm of MicroLink, Steve’s making full use of local know-how: “The compound semiconductor scene is a very active and rapidly growing market, from semiconductor chips to semiconductor power sources, and now photovoltaics are becoming a very key interest,” he says.
MicroLink Devices UK specialises in the design, development and manufacture of advanced solar arrays for spacecraft and aircraft, and also for terrestrial applications. The company first developed its manufacturing process in Chicago and is now establishing a high-volume solar cell fabrication facility at Baglan Bay Innovation Centre in Wales.
To get technical for a moment, what the company does is to make and assemble ultra-lightweight, high-efficiency solar cells. To get even more techie, they’re epitaxial lift-off (ELO) inverted metamorphic (IMM) solar cells – the world’s highest specific power solar technology. These solar cells are five times lighter than the nearest competitors’ product and are truly rollable which means they are not susceptible to breakages or cracking.
In effect, what they’re doing is harnessing the capabilities of the compound semiconductors that are made further down the supply chain (and just down the M4 motorway).
For instance, MicroLink’s solar cells were taken on two space missions as part of the Materials International Space Station Experiment (MISSE). Their cells flew on the exterior of the International Space Station to test their performance and durability, passing with flying colours. MicroLink’s solar cells are the technology of choice for High Altitude Pseudo Satellites (HAPS) for major developers/manufactures in the UK (e.g. Airbus and Bae), where high power/weight ratio and flexibility are key parameters.
Back on earth, MicroLink have also been doing their bit in the Covid-19 pandemic. They developed a disinfection cabinet and also LUSS (LED based Ultra-Violet exposure for Safe Surfaces), an automatic door cleaning device that uses nanometre wavelength light to kill viruses and bacteria, preventing the spread of infection in medical facilities.
They’re also playing a key part in CS Connected, the world’s first compound semiconductor cluster. It’s an association of organisations who are involved with the research, development, innovation and manufacturing of compound semiconductor-related technologies. Thanks to the cluster, Wales has become a global hotspot for the technology over the past decade.
“You’ve got the academic organisations such as Cardiff University and Swansea University that are very prevalent in those arenas,” says Steve. “And that then attracts companies in because obviously you’ve got to do the R&D. It’s expanding now from the companies that actually produce the end products, but you’ve also got companies which are producing the toolsets to be able to support the manufacturing of those products into the area.
“The main thing for businesses like ourselves is moving quite rapidly from pure research into development, then a very quick transition into manufacturing, so that transition is going to be as smooth and as fast as we possibly can.
“Wales is extremely good at it. Since I first set the company up it has outlived my dreams and expectations already.”