Intel Corp, Advanced Micro Devices Inc and Motorola Inc are betting they can build smaller and faster microprocessors delivering 100 times the compute power and 1000 times the storage capacity of current CPUs using NAG neodymiumytrium aluminum garnet – EUV extreme ultraviolet – lasers. They think EUV rather than other techniques such as X-ray, electrons beams or excimer lasers, will be the replacement for current optical lithography techniques used to etch chip designs on to silicon. They think the chips will power a new generation of TV-on-a-chip and real speech recognition devices. The fact is the chips guys want to build transistors smaller than can be designed with the wavelength of visible light. Microprocessor inventor Gordon Moore, chairman emeritus of Intel Corp, says it will be at least 2002 before process technology developed by the company the three chip-builders have created, Extreme Ultraviolet Limited Liability Co, can squeeze one billion transistors each measuring less than 0.1micron on a chip (one micron is a millionth of a meter). However between 2010 and 2020 Moore figures they’ll have to come up with something even better, as the atomic properties of transistor elements mean they interfere with each other too much to be useful below 0.05microns. Together with defense and telecommunications giant TRW Inc, the three companies are to invest $250m over three years to productize the EUV technology which is being developed at research labs in the US. They’ll license it to companies which build the systems that manufacture microprocessors. The $250m investment is claimed to be the largest ever private backing for what is a US Department of Energy initiative, and is supposedly an indication of US president Bill Clinton’s intent to have US semiconductor companies lead the an industry largely dominated by Japanese companies. Under the agreement signed in July, TRW will provide the solid-state laser technology to EULL Extreme Ultraviolet Limited Liability Co, which will emit extreme ultraviolet light. This provides the very short wavelengths which are needed to produce ultra fine chip geometries. Ultimately, this will permit transistors to be placed closer together, enabling the circuits to run faster. TRW is due to deliver the first laser to the consortium in January 1999 – it promises a demo of the technology in December 1999. Faster chips, enabled by smaller geometries with closer transistors and better conductivity are the Holy Grail of the semiconductor industry. Earlier this month, the US Semiconductor Manufacturing Consortium Sematech, of which Intel, AMD and Motorola are members, announced it had prototyped wafers with copper instead of aluminum, which is a better conductor and enables faster data transfer (CI No 3,236). Sematech is aimed at helping the US win the semiconductor wars. Likewise, TRW believes this agreement will give US suppliers of chip-making equipment the edge for competing in world markets.
Intel believes current process design and fabrication techniques, currently getting down to around 0.18microns – a human hair is 100microns – can get to 0.13microns, but is unlikely to get below to 0.1microns without EUV. EULL says it has invited other companies to participate in the venture but declined to name them. The member companies will have intellectual property rights to the technology. EULL thinks up to 75% of companies which manufacture microprocessors will utilize the resulting technology. It will use 3Com Corp to manufacture the optical technology used in the process. Sandia and Lawrence Livermore Labs will get 45% of the funding each, the remainder will go to Lawrence Berkeley. Extreme Ultraviolet is a description EULL is using to describe a wavelength that exists between ultraviolet light and X-ray; Moore describes it as soft X-ray. It requires the use of crystals, or diodes, which TRW will supply to EULL in the form of a kilowatt-class, diode-pumped solid-state laser. IBM has been experimenting with X-ray lithography while AT&T Co’s Bell Labs has been investigating the use of electron beams.
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