The AXT Way 

Meet Xuan Wen Li. Fremont semiconductor firm AXT, Inc. poisoned him with arsenic, then fired him - just as it did with up to 500 other Chinese immigrants.

Page 3 of 10

In the mid-1980s, many engineers were worried that they had reached the upper limits of how much information computers could process using silicon semiconductors. But gallium arsenide showed promise. It was rare, brittle, and expensive, but its electronic properties allowed information to be processed exponentially faster than its silicon contemporaries. If only someone could find a way to produce it on the cheap, recalls Robert Meyer, an electrical engineering professor at UC Berkeley. "It was the hottest thing around, according to the trade press," he says. "Back in '86, PCs were only able to turn two million times a second ... at the time, gallium arsenide could turn ten times that."

In 1986, while working as a physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Morris Young hit upon a new method of growing gallium arsenide crystals. Along with his two brothers, Gary and Theodore, and current AXT board member Davis Zhang, Young founded American Xtal Technology in a small complex in Dublin. "He was able to make the materials in a more cost-effective and efficient manner, and, from that, he was able to start the company," says Guy Atwood, AXT's chief financial officer during the 1990s. "Crystal growth is his specialty."

In addition to information processing, gallium arsenide had applications in fiber optics and solar cells that spurred a wave of research and development in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The compound emits light more readily than silicon, which made it useful in cell phones, CD players, and optical computer mice. "If you're calling me from a cell phone, most likely there's a gallium arsenide transistor in it," says UC Berkeley material science professor Eugene Haller. "You can make light-emitting diodes or very compact, efficient lasers which can read your entertainment stuff."

Gallium arsenide's resistance to radiation also makes it useful in solar cells, which the Department of Defense uses to power communications and spy satellites. As a result, the department has pumped tens of millions of dollars into gallium arsenide research projects, including several overseen by AXT.

But while one arm of the government was investing in AXT, another was investigating it. On June 19, 1995, an employee accidentally dipped her fingers into a bath of caustic hydrogen fluoride and suffered severe burns. The accident prompted a visit from the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health, which inspected the facility and issued four citations for serious violations of worker safety laws.

One year later, AXT moved its operation from Dublin to a larger campus at 4311 Solar Way in Fremont. The technology boom was sweeping up AXT along with many other companies, and the semiconductor manufacturer went on a hiring spree. Hundreds of recent Chinese immigrants found work there. Since almost none of them spoke English, local jobs were scarce, and they were thankful for the steady paycheck. They had no idea what else lay in store for them at the new factory.

When Morris Young was founding AXT, Fei Ying Zhao was a country girl growing up on the outskirts of Canton, China, where her father supervised a farm that sold fruit and tea. Her family made a little more money once they moved to Canton and bought a house, and Zhao quit school after the ninth grade to take a sales job in a furniture store. But her aunt kept calling from America, urging her relatives to come to the new country. "Lots of people want to immigrate to United States in mainland China; they want to see life in United States," Zhao says through a Mandarin interpreter. "Everyone thought there was a better life here."

Zhao was a good daughter who obeyed her parents, so she got on a plane and, in May 2000, found herself in a crowded San Francisco apartment with the rest of her extended family. With her diminutive frame, slender arms, and timid, unsteady gait, it's hard to imagine Zhao sweating away in a factory. But two months after she arrived in America, that's just what she found herself doing for AXT.

Tags: ,


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Anonymous and pseudonymous comments will be removed.

Latest in Feature

Author Archives

Most Popular Stories

Special Reports

The Beer Issue 2020

The Decade in Review

The events and trends that shaped the Teens.

Best of the East Bay


© 2020 Telegraph Media    All Rights Reserved
Powered by Foundation