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What is the Difference between Integrated Circuits and Chips?

Integrated circuits (ICs) and chips are both common components found in a wide range of electronic devices. Although similar in functionality and composition, there are some critical differences worth highlighting. In this blog, we will cover the nuances associated with integrated circuits and chips, before discussing the main differences between the two miniaturized electronic parts.

Integrated circuits comprise a complex architecture consisting of transistors, diodes, capacitors, and resistors mounted onto a single semiconductor substrate. The "integrated" component refers to the fact that all of the devices mentioned are found on a single unit, instead of requiring separate fabrication and soldering. ICs form the foundation for the majority of electronic consumer devices, including smartphones, computers, and cameras, among others. Using a process called photolithography, manufacturers may readily produce integrated circuits of varying sizes to fit the requirements of a given application.

A chip refers to the small piece of semiconductor material, commonly silicon, used to support integrated circuits and other micro-components. Before understanding why silicon is selected most often when designing chips, it is first necessary to review the principles behind semiconductors. Every element has a particular value associated with its electrical conductivity and resistance; conductivity refers to the ability of electrons to move freely throughout the atom or molecule. Generally, elements that have higher conductivity values are called conductors, while nonconductive species may be labeled as insulators. Based on their electronic configuration, most metals are conductors and most nonmetals are insulators.

Semiconductors fall in between conductors and insulators at room temperature, although these properties will vary significantly based on the material's operating environment. Diamond, which comprises a crystal lattice of carbon-carbon bonds, has an electronic configuration similar to silicon and germanium. However, diamond is rarely used as a semiconductor material due to its cost and the nature of its bonds, which are characteristically stronger than other elements in the same column. This feature requires diamond to be exposed to higher thermal energy to display conductive properties.

Depending on the application in question, manufacturers may "dope" the semiconductor with intentional impurities. A constituent with more valence electrons than the substrate will change the electron density of the lattice to allow for greater conduction. Meanwhile, a member with fewer valence electrons will increase the resistivity. Using a process called ion implantation, producers can accurately position these additives in particular regions. Although some semiconductor products exist in the intrinsic form, most found in integrated circuits and chips are of the doped variant.

With these properties in mind, the difference between chips and integrated circuits is purely semantic. Although the term "chip" usually refers to the semiconductor aspect, and "integrated circuit" describes the end product, both are often used interchangeably to describe the electronic device as a whole. The similarities are even more apparent when considering a package containing multiple integrated circuits, which is often called a chipset.

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