Will a small Galilee factory deliver Nvidia's superconductor?

Published date26 September 2023
AuthorAssaf Gilead
Publication titleGlobes (Rishon LeZion, Israel)
The workers on the production floor - women only - represent all strata of the population residing near the factory: religious girls from Nof HaGil with head-coverings; Bedouins from Zarzir dressed in burqas; war refugees from Ukraine; Jews from Migdal Ha'emek, and Muslims from nearby Mashhad and Bu'eine Nujeidat

Mauve/pink is the color of the kitchenette, too, with rose-colored microwaves and toasters. It is kosher, keeping meat and dairy separate, and if girls from the ultra-Orthodox community take up Simtal's offer to work there, it may one day be separated by gender. For the time being, of the 100 workers, only four are men, of which three are electricians and one is CEO Eran Bar-Rabi, life partner of Simtal founder, president, and sole owner Tal Kaufman.

"I couldn't find any female electricians - women who work with electricity professionally -- that's why I also employ some men here," Kaufman, tells "Globes". "In our field, women are better workers than men." she states. "It's like a manicure; have a man work for nine hours doing delicate work through a microscope and he won't last. When men encounter a problem, they use strength, and if that doesn't solve it, they use even more strength. Women know how to overcome problems elegantly and gently."

From the outside, Simtal is just another factory, one of many of its kind in Israel. It deals in protective coatings for electronic components - a standard process in electronic device production, designed to protect these all-important components from water, acid, and corrosion. This is a traditional industry in which processes are 50 years old and more - a far cry from the glamorous world of startups and unicorns in Israel's central region.

Away from the bustle of production is a hidden side room, off-limits to the hardworking staff. Over the past year, Kaufman, along with CEO Bar Rabi, have devoted their time to building a huge machine, about three and a half meters high and eight meters long. It looks like a small submarine connected to the kind of cooling unit usually found at server farms. In fact, these are giant interconnected ovens that, through a two-hour process, produce thin sheets of graphene, one of the most intriguing materials around, frequently described as the superconductor that could disrupt countless industries.

The staff in this room are completely different: high-tech workers in t-shirts and jeans work on constructing and calibrating the machine. They are from Nvidia, the semiconductor giant whose major development center in Israel is located not far away, a 15-minute drive from Yokneam.

What is the most talked about chip company in the world, which recently crossed the trillion-dollar mark, looking for in a low-tech factory near Nazareth? Graphene is said to have supermaterial properties: flexibility that allows it to be folded many times over, tremendous strength -- a hundred times that of steel -- better electrical conductivity than any other conductive material, and heat dissipation that makes it one of the most important materials for the future of the computing industry. Nvidia believes that casing its graphics processor in graphene will facilitate highly efficient heat dispersal, so that cooling costs at the server farms operating the world's cloud and artificial intelligence services could be reduced dramatically.

Kaufman runs the only factory in Israel that coats printed circuits with a chemical called parylene - a type of nylon polymer that evaporates under high heat and wraps onto the electronic boards as a thin, impermeable layer. She realized that graphene production processes are similar to coating processes. She was, in any case, looking to expand into new businesses along the electronics value chain, and two years ago stepped out of her comfort zone and into the Israel Innovation Authority's (IAA) Graphene Consortium. This is a syndicate comprising commercial companies and academic institutions set up as a government initiative aimed at more effective coordination to solve big, demanding problems, instead of supporting cybersecurity or fintech companies that could easily raise funds from venture capital funds. Graphene Consortium members include Bar Ilan University, Tel Aviv University, and commercial companies such as Elisra...

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