The United States has fallen behind China and Europe in the production and adoption of electric vehicles, especially from 2017 to 2020, according to a study by the International Council on Clean Transportation. One important piece of the puzzle that the U.S. does have supremacy in, however, is the production of semiconductors, which are used in everything from smartphones to computers to electric vehicles. Now, it might be strengthening that hold.
SK Siltron CSS, a unit of South Korean semiconductor wafer manufacturer SK Siltron, announced Wednesday plans to invest $300 million and create up to 150 high-paying, skilled jobs in Bay County, Michigan, which is a couple of hours north of Detroit, the country's first automaking haven. The wafer manufacturer already has a presence in nearby Auburn, so the new factory will more than double its employee base. Over the next three years, SK Siltron says its investment will provide manufacturing and R&D capabilities of advanced materials for electric vehicles.
SK Siltron CSS chief executive Jianwei Dong told Reuters, which first reported the news, the $300 million investment would "help develop a domestic EV supply chain based in Michigan because we have our end customers in nearby communities."
This new investment comes amid an ever-increasing lineup of new electric vehicles and investments in electrification from American automakers, including legacy companies General Motors and Ford, as well as Tesla and upstarts such as Rivian.
It's also joining the sticky pot of trade wars between China and the U.S.
China has owned EV production globally, producing 44% of all vehicles made from 2010 to 2020, but the U.S. has put a strangle hold on semiconductors, consistently blocking China from acquiring other chipmakers. Strong policies that both invest in EV production and spur demand have proven successful in both China and Europe, according to the ICCT report. The Biden administration's call for $174 billion in funding to expand EV subsidies and charging networks could help the country catch up.
"As we build toward a more sustainable future, it is important that we create new, robust supply chains in the U.S. to support our corporations and the end consumer," said U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina M. Raimondo in a statement. "The automotive industry has a tremendous opportunity with the rise of the electric vehicle, and we're excited to see companies like SK Siltron CSS expanding to help support the transition to a green future."
The SK Siltron CSS expansion still needs approval from state and local authorities, the company said, although it's unlikely it will meet much resistance. The Michigan Economic Development Corporation said the state has been trying to attract EV-related jobs, spending nearly $9 billion in investments over the last two years and adding more than 10,000 jobs for the EV transition. SK Siltron said as it works with the state and local agencies to find employees, 70% will be skilled workers and the rest will be professional engineers.
A wafer is a thin slice of semiconductor that's used to make integrated circuits, which essentially help make semiconductor chips smaller and faster. The wafer serves as the base upon which the rest of the semiconductor is built, making it a crucial ingredient to the whole process. EVs need semiconductors because they allow batteries to operate at higher voltages, drive the powertrain and support modern car features like touchscreen interactivity.
SK Siltron's wafer is made of silicon carbide, which can handle higher powers and conduct heat better than normal silicon, the company says.
"When used in EV system components, this characteristic can allow a more efficient transfer of electricity from the battery to the motor, increasing the driving range of an EV by 5% to 10%," the company said in a statement.
The wafers can also be used in 5G communications equipment, and Dong told Reuters that the company is also considering additional investments.