Oxford Instruments Plc expressed itself delighted at the news breaking yesterday that IBM Corp and Motorola Inc are joining forces with AT&T Corp and Loral Corp in a joint venture to take X-ray lithography beyond the experimental stage and into production chip fabrication. AT&T confirmed the story, which first appeared in the Wall Street Journal; Motorola Inc has already put some money into IBM’s existing X-ray lithography effort, which uses the first synchrotron built by Oxford to generate the X-rays, and the aim of the joint venture is to invest $100m to expand on this – using the Oxford synchrotron. The UK company would not say whether it expected an order for a further synchrotron from the joint venture – which it has known about for some time – but clearly the company will be in the driving seat if competitors decide to follow the joint venture’s lead. Formation of the joint venture makes it clear that chipmakers now believe that they at the limits of ultraviolet light lithography and need to go to X-rays to get design rules down much further. The finer the design rules, the faster the chip and the more circuits that can be squeezed onto a given chip area. IBM’s contribution to the joint venture is likely to be the synchrotron and associated equipment, and that makes up part of the $100m investment. The US government is expected to put some money into the venture – which will be based at IBM’s Advanced Semiconductor Technology facility in East Fishkill, New York, too. The alliance will refine the X-ray technology, which the companies would then individually use – implying orders for new synchrotrons from at least AT&T and Motorola. Intel Corp has so far eschewed X-ray lithography in favour of electron beam and ion beam techniques. The current leading edge chips are fabricated to 0.35 micron design rules, but the new venture will aim to get that down to 0.18 microns using X-rays, putting the technology into chip production early next century.
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