The quest for faster computers has opened the door to a potentially huge new market in the crowded semiconductor field. Gallium arsenide has been touted for years as a semiconductor material that could elbow aside silicon and open major new applications in data processing and telecommunications. Now its day is apparently arriving as companies jockey for the leading position in a market that could grow from peanuts now to $5.6 billion by 1992, according to Strategic Inc., a market research firm in San Jose, Calif.

The allure of gallium arsenide is its extraordinary speed. Engineers are beginning to bump up against the limits of processing speed in computer chips made from silicon, but gallium arsenide circuits are inherently 5 to 10 times faster. In addition, chips made from the compound need far less electrical power than do high-speed silicon circuits to operate, and they operate at far higher frequencies, making them ideal for microwave and fiber-optic systems.

But there are plenty of obstacles for companies trying to enter the field. Start-up companies face high research and development costs to overcome the difficulties involved in making gallium arsenide chips. "There's more art than science in it now," says Fred Blum, chairman and president of GigaBit Logic, a three-year-old Newbury Park, Calif., company. "It tends to discourage those not already steeped in semiconductor technology."

Meanwhile, several large electronics companies -- including Tektronix, Rockwell International, and Hewlett-Packard -- have been making gallium arsenide circuits for their own use for some time. That head start could prove important if they decided to begin marketing the chips. Last winter, Harris Microwave Semiconductor Inc., a subsidiary of Harris Corp., introduced the first commercially available digital integrated circuits based on gallium arsenide technology. And the Japanese may also enter the fray.

Right now, high-quality gallium arsenide chips are difficult to make and the yield of usable chips is still very low. As a result, they cost3 to 10 times as much as their silicon counterparts. Memory chips will start at only 1Kb (1,000 bits) followed by 4Kb densities. Until prices fall gallium arsenide may be limited to applications in which its speed and other unique characteristics are critical.

Nevertheless, several small companies like GigaBit are taking aim at this market. Blum worked on gallium arsenide circuits when he was vice-president of Rockwell International Corp.'s microelectronics center, then left in 1981 to start GigaBit, which got an investment from Analog Devices Inc. (see "Mutual Benefits," page 82).

GigaBit plans to introduce about a dozen products this summer and four or five more by the end of the year, including logic and memory chips for computers. Blum sees this as his largest market, accounting for more than half of the company's sales within a few years. Potential customers are computer makers who specialize in ultrafast mainframes for widening applications in business, defense, scientific research, robotics, and artificial intelligence. Cray Research Inc., for example, will use gallium arsenide chips for its Cray 3 supercomputer, planned for release in 1987. "Nobody has a computer made from gallium arsenide now," says Peter Gregory, a vice-president at Cray. "It's an ambitious step."

Microwave Monolithics Inc., a two-year-old company founded by another Rockwell alumnus, Daniel Ch'en, is preparing gallium arsenide circuits for an entirely different market: microwave broadcasting. Gallium arsenide devices are largely used in some military hardware, but Ch'en will also target a potentially huge consumer market: receivers for satellite-television broadcasting to the home. In the United States alone according to one estimate, demand for these receivers by 1990 could surpass a million units a year.

Microgravity Research Associates Inc., founded in 1979, is aiming at the most specialized market niche of all. MRA is developing the technology to produce gallium arsenide wafers for semiconductor companies such as GigaBit Logic to turn into chips. But these are not just any wafers. MRA plans to grow extremely pure gallium arsenide crystals aboard the space shuttle, escaping the gravity-induced problems that can make earth-bound manufacturing so difficult.

The first small-scale test may be aboard the space shuttle by mid-1986, with commercial production starting in 1989. But MRA has only enough capital, raised through a limited partnership, to see it through a few test flights. Says Richard Randolph, president of MRA and a retired Air Force colonel: "It's difficult to raise that money, because of the high level of risk and the long time the money will be at risk."