August 27, 2012
By: Shara Tibken
Source: Shara Tibken
Mobile-Device Progress at Stake as Companies Search for New Ways to Shrink Processors
NY -- Smartphones and other devices keep getting smarter, but that may
change if a key step in manufacturing computer chips isn't updated soon.
Semiconductors provide the brains, data storage and other capabilities
of electronic products, so improving chips is necessary to make gadgets
smaller, faster and cheaper.
In the computer chip lab at SUNY/Albany's College for Nanoscale Science
and Engineering, researchers from rival for-profit companies like IBM
and INTEL are working side-by-side in an innovative partnership with the
school, WSJ's Shara Tibken reports.
Engineers are squeezing more transistors on each square of silicon, but
the pace of miniaturization—known as Moore's Law after Intel Corp.'s
co-founder—faces a major hurdle. The current photographic process that
lays out circuitry on chips isn't believed capable of creating the
tinier patterns needed for chips later in the decade.
Chip manufacturers have run into problems developing a new technique
known as extreme ultraviolet, or EUV, lithography. Tools based on the
technology cost about twice as much as current machines—commanding price
tags of more than $100 million each, by some estimates—and can't yet
process chips quickly enough to be practical for high-volume
Further delays in refining EUV could ripple through the electronics
industry in the next several years, making it too costly for many
manufacturers to build more advanced chips and slowing progress of
smartphones and computers.
"It's not like the industry is totally hosed if it doesn't happen, but
it will be bad," said David Kanter, principal analyst at Real World
The stakes are big for chip manufacturers, which are betting billions of
dollars on EUV and ASML Holdings NV, which is developing tools based on
the technology. Intel recently announced plans to invest up to $4.1
billion in the Dutch company and its research, while Taiwan
Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. agreed to put up about $1.4 billion and
Samsung Electronics Co. promised about $975 million.
Current lithography systems use light to project patterns of circuitry
on chips, which are fabricated on silicon wafers. The problem is the
wavelength of conventional light is now larger than the features being
defined, a bit like trying to paint a thin line with too large a brush.
A new technique called extreme ultraviolet lithography can't yet process
chips quickly enough to be practical for high-volume manufacturing.
Chip companies have employed many tricks to extend the current
technology, including shining light through liquid to get finer image
resolution. They also sometimes run wafers through machines multiple
times to achieve further gains, an expensive process akin to taking
multiple exposures to get one photo.
EUV offers the equivalent of a finer brush by producing much shorter wavelengths of light than current lithography tools.
But EUV comes with headaches. The shorter wavelength causes EUV rays to
be absorbed by almost everything, including air, so it must be created
in a vacuum environment using mirrors.
A laser, the same kind used in metalworking to cut through thick plates
of steel, is trained on droplets of tin about as thin as human hair that
fly at about 240 miles per hour across the vacuum chamber. The
interaction produces light that is delivered to a scanner that patterns
the circuits on a chip.
ASML has so far been hampered by the strength of the light in its
systems. The company has found it difficult to hit the tin with the
laser perfectly every time, and the tin can coat the mirrors, two
factors that hurt the power of the light.
The company won't say how many wafers it is able to process in an hour
with its current tools, but analysts believe it is about 20 to 30. To be
widely adopted by the industry, EUV systems need to handle about 100
wafers an hour, analysts say.
Cymer Inc., a company developing the light source for ASML's EUV
machines, said it has increased the power of the light about tenfold
over the past year and a half, boosting the amount of wafers processed
each hour. It's aiming to make another tenfold improvement and then
double or triple the power again after that, said Nigel Farrar, a Cymer
fellow and vice president of marketing and lithography technologies.
EUV should be used in high volumes by early adopters in 2014, said Noreen Harned, ASML senior director of technology.
While work on EUV continues, manufacturers are taking steps to extend
current methods as long as they can. They also are looking at
alternatives in case EUV doesn't pan out as hoped.
"We have a path to achieve our technology goals both with and without
EUV," said Yan Borodovsky, an Intel senior fellow and director of
One alternative approach is directed self assembly, or DSA, in which
chemicals are combined to build superfine patterns on a chip. Companies
are in the early stages of working on the technology, but experts see
Nikon Corp., ASML's biggest rival, is looking to modify its equipment to
make it DSA-friendly, said Donis Flagello, a Nikon Research Corp. of
America fellow who specializes in imaging. The company doesn't currently
offer an EUV tool, focusing for now on developing tools for a larger
generation of wafers the industry is contemplating to lower
manufacturing costs per chip. Because more chips can be made from each
wafer, it cuts costs of each processor.
"EUV is really, really expensive," Mr. Flagello said. "We're not sure it
makes sense for customers to have EUV without [larger] wafers."
Still, the investments to date show the industry is placing most of its
bets on EUV as a contender to keep Moore's Law going."I've got full
confidence ASML will make the technology viable," said
Mark Durcan, chief executive of memory chip maker Micron Technology Inc.
"In my mind, it's not a question of if. It's a question of when."