Sunday, April 7, 2024

"The global semiconductor industry relies on a single NC mountain town"

From The News&Observer (Raleigh, NC), March 29:

I’m Brian Gordon, tech reporter for The News & Observer, and this is Open Source, a weekly newsletter on business, labor and technology in North Carolina. 

How strict is security at the Sibelco mine in Spruce Pine, North Carolina? In his 2023 book “Material World,” Ed Conway spoke to someone familiar with the site who said, “When contractors from other companies are brought in for repairs [at the plant] they are literally blindfolded and marched into the factory up to the machine they need to fix.” 

About an hour’s drive northeast of Asheville, the mountain town of Spruce Pine is where Sibelco, a private Belgium mineral company, digs for the world’s purest quartz. 

“I’ve been sent to Brazil, I’ve been sent to Australia, and nothing matches the final purity of the Spruce Pine quartz,” Alex Glover, a geologist near Spruce Pine who has worked for several mining companies, told me in a phone interview this week. 

Quartz is essential for many modern technologies, including solar panels, fiber optics and semiconductors. 

“It is rare, unheard of almost, for a single site to control the global supply of a crucial material,” Conway writes. “Yet if you want to get high-purity quartz — the kind you need to make those crucibles without which you can’t make silicon wafers — it has to come from Spruce Pine.” 

This high-purity quartz formed about 380 million years ago, during the Ordovician geological period, when continental Africa smashed into today’s North America. The area’s lack of water was a benefit; Glover explained water induces mineral impurities....