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IBM Chip Path to Cheat Moore's Law?

In the search for new chip form factors to carry the torch that is Moore's Law, IBM researchers this week said they have found a way to build smaller chip circuits.

The method could stave off the industry's move to expensive alternatives for another seven years, the company's engineers said in a statement from the IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif.

Using deep ultraviolet optical lithography, which is used to "print" circuits onto chips, IBM scientists said they have created the smallest line patterns ever made.

The ridges are only 29.9 nanometers wide, or less than one-third the size of the 90-nanometer features now in mass production and below the 32 nanometers the industry believes is the limit for optical lithography.

"This result is the strongest evidence to date that the industry may have at least seven years of breathing room before any radical changes in chip-making techniques would be needed," said Robert D. Allen, manager of lithography materials at IBM's Almaden Research Center, in a statement.

The news is big given the historical context of chip making.

To this point, the semiconductor market has relied on shrinking circuits to increase the performance and function of chips and the products that use them.

But for the last few years, chips from Intel, AMD, IBM and others have been getting closer to the scale limits of atoms and molecules, threatening Moore's Law for steady innovation.

Specifically, researchers weren't sure if they could adapt current photolithography techniques to produce effective chips smaller than 32 nanometers.

IBM's researchers' latest "high-index immersion" variant of DUV lithography may provide a path for extending Moore's Law.

Allen said IBM's goal is to push optical lithography as far as they can so the industry does not have to move to any expensive alternatives until "absolutely necessary."

The expensive alternative Allen is referring to is a manufacturing process that uses soft x-rays, or extreme ultraviolet light (EUV), and mirrors rather than the laser light and lenses used in traditional photolithography.

EUV, along with other tricky techniques such as imprint lithography and direct-write electron beam, are unproven, said IBM spokesman Mike Ross.

Kevin Krewell, editor-in-chief of the "Microprocessor Report" for researcher In-Stat, agreed.

"EUV is a different manufacturing flow than standard lithography, and manufacturers want to postpone moving to EUV because it is so disruptive to the standard manufacturing flow," said Krewell.

Meanwhile, IBM's engineers said that now that they have a path for extending optical lithography, high-index lens materials must be developed to enable its commercial viability.

The researchers, which built the 29.9-nanometer lines using an apparatus called NEMO and materials developed by JSR Micro, will reveal more technical details at the SPIE Microlithography 2006 conference in San Jose this week.