After withdrawing from China’s “17+1” framework targeting Central and Eastern European countries in May, seeking to decrease its economic dependence on China, the Baltic nation of Lithuania proceeded to deepen diplomatic ties with Taiwan, agreeing to mutually set up representative offices. Currently, a Taiwanese delegation of government officials and business leaders is heading to Lithuania.
Lithuania leads in laser technology
Lithuania is one of the global leaders in laser technology: when it comes to pico-second laser spectrometers, Lithuania accounts for half of the global market. In fact, 80% of the country’s laser production is exported to the international market, with an annual turnover of €20 million. The country’s laser sector began 30 years ago, initially focusing on scientific research. With the help of private initiatives, Lithuania’s strong scientific research in laser eventually gained a foothold in the industrial laser market.
Lithuania’s leading position in the laser industry has made it increasingly strategic, as laser has become ever more integral to the coming revolution in telecommunications and manufacturing. Coincidentally, the Lithuanian laser industry also seeks to boost its export by further integrating into International laser applications value chains.
Previously, Lithuania’s trade with Taiwan was very limited, according to the Baltic country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs: as of 2020, Taiwan only accounts for 1.6% of Lithuania’s laser export. Meanwhile, China, the United States, and Germany are the three largest markets for Lithuania’s laser industry, respectively holding 31.6%, 15.8%, and 12.6% of its export market. However, the warming ties between Taiwan and Lithuania might change the dynamics, especially when Taiwan’s semiconductor industry seeks a larger role in photonics, satellites and the automotive sector, all of which depend on advanced laser technology.
Even TSMC lags behind in silicon photonics
Augustinas Vizbaras, a founder of Brolis Semiconductors, one of Lithuania’s leading semiconductor and photonics company, commented that Lithuania’s small internal market had long driven companies to look for external markets, and partnerships with Taiwan would be welcomed if they could expand Lithuania’s customer base in Taiwan or lead to more global opportunities.
Brolis Semiconductors especially recognizes a cooperation opportunity in silicon photonics, its area of specialization: as the Taiwanese semiconductor industry begins to focus on designing silicon photonics, the integration of laser source with silicon-based manufacturing process has become a major obstacle, given their incompatibility. While advanced packaging can bring about such integration, it requires a level of precision that Taiwan can yet achieve. Overall, Taiwan currently faces a dilemma in which its chip packaging industry is inexperienced with photonics, while its photonics packaging industry is unfamiliar with semiconductor.
With the support of Taiwanese government, the National Taiwan University of Science and Technology already kickstarted a silicon photonics IC project in 2018, aiming to increase Taiwan’s silicon photonics design capability, develop the core competences, and eventually establish a complete ecosystem of silicon photonic chips akin to that of Taiwan’s current silicon ICs.
Even TSMC, the leader of Taiwan’s semiconductor industry, has stepped up its research into silicon photonics. Despite TSMC’s multiple advantages over Intel, silicon photonics is not one of them: in fact, Intel is widely considered a pioneer in silicon photonics, and as been experimenting with it as early as 2006. In 2016, Intel’s current CEO Pat Gelsinger, then the company’s Vice President, declared that “Today, optics is a niche technology. Tomorrow, it’s the mainstream of every chip that we build.” In contrast, TSMC is a late comer in this field.
3D circuits a cooperation priority
Gediminas Račiukaitis, the head of Lithuania’s leading laser technology institute, the Department of Laser Technologies (LTS) under the Center for Physical Sciences and Technology (FTMC), also expressed interest to cooperate with Taiwan in the area of laser micro-fabrication technologies. Račiukaitis particularly pointed out the compatibility between Taiwan’s Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) and the LTS in the area of 3D circuits.
“We have technologies that can be applied for 3D circuits on dielectric materials, including antennas for communication,” indicated Račiukaitis. Specifically, LTS has developed a new method for writing electronic circuits directly onto the dielectric material by modifying surface properties with a laser. Named Selective Surface Activation Induced by Laser (SSAIL), the new method is presented as a better alternative to the mainstream Laser Direct Structuring (LDS) method introduced by Germany’s LPKF Laser & Electronics. While both methods are deployed to produce moulded interconnect devices, a key miniaturization technology with wide applications in automotive and RF sectors, SSAIL is hailed as more cost-effective. Unlike LDS, SSAIL doesn’t use special additives that are expensive, and consequently the method can be used on transparent polymers and glasses.
Currently, ITRI and LTS have started initial contacts.
Laying the groundwork for Taiwan’s future industries
Overall, cooperations with Lithuania’s laser industry come in time when Taiwan has been actively building a domestic laser industry, especially in light of Chinese competition. Last year in 2020, ITRI already partnered with Germany’s TRUMPF Group to establish a Semicon & Electronic Industries Laser Application Service Center, aiming to develop high-end laser sources and equipment for Taiwan’s semiconductor industry. Cooperations with Lithuania can certainly accelerate the pace of Taiwan’s own laser industry.
Apart from semiconductors, laser technology can also be used in Taiwan’s budding automotive and satellite industries. Dr. Jong-Shinn Wu, the director of Taiwan’s space program, has for example indicated that laser solutions represent one of the areas where Taiwan needs international cooperations. Lithuanian laser companies such as Lidaris and Optolita are all actively engaged with European Space Agency. Perhaps, together with Lithuania, Taiwan will not only drive the chip industry forward, but also explore the burgeoning space market.