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Intel Puts Chipmaking Technique on the Fast Track

Intel Monday said it is investing some $20 million in a San Diego-based firm to help it make semiconductors smaller than a human hair and bring them to market sometime in the next five years.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based chip making giant said it is working with Cymer on a three-year contract to speed up the development of extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography light sources. Lithography tools are used to project an image of circuits and transistors on silicon wafers.

Intel is hoping to produce chips with circuits as thin as 32-nanometers (nm) with 193-nm scanners. The No. 1 chip maker said it wants the development tools in place by 2006 and chips using the technology in market circulation by the end of 2009.

If it is able to achieve that thinness, it would be close to twice as thin as currently possible on these machines, and circuits would have a width of less than one-thousandth of a human hair.

"Accelerating EUV technology development to enable its successful implementation in high volume manufacturing for the 32-nm node in 2009 is a critical mission at Intel," Peter Silverman, Intel Fellow and director of Intel's Lithography Capital Equipment Development said in a statement.

Intel's production schedule is a bit more aggressive than the 2013 timeframe as defined by the 2003 edition of the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors (ITRS). The 500-page report released last week is a 15-year timetable for how the chip sector should shake out.

Intel said its EUV lithography is positioned for commercial deployment in 2009, but several issues remain. One key is the ability to increase the amount of power a chip can produce to match the amount of power needed to make the wafer in the first place.

The other is encouraging fabrication plants to switch from their current 248-nm or even 190-nm lithography methods and the prevailing method of etching wafers: deep ultraviolet (DUV) light.

"The trend right now is to delay any new technology that forces manufacturers to change their ways," Semico Director of Research Dave Cavanaugh told internetnews.com. "The industry is trying to make due with the technology including using tricks like transmissive masking and reflective lenses."

Cymer Executive Vice President Brian Klene said his company's advantage is that it already specializes in DUV process technology and that it has been working on the process since 1999, with the help of some funding from Intel and the government's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

He acknowledges the industry's use of alternative manufacturing techniques (known in the industry as K1 or "black magic") through masking or retinal enhancements, but said the processes can be greatly improved by shifting to EUV processes.

"As we evolve smaller processes, [fabrication manufacturers] have to use more of these tricks to print these very thin lines," Klene said. "Right now its like printing with a wide paint brush."

For example, one method -- immersion lithography -- uses a lens submerged in water to help it etch miniature lines on a wafer.

Klene said new and existing factories could upgrade to EUV technology easily by installing the appropriate equipment, but the price tag right now could run a fab into the 100's of thousands of dollars.

"The lithography tools right now would run you about $25 to $30 million each," Klene said. "Then there are resist tools and development tools that make up what we call a cell. A manufacturer would want multiple cells. Those cost about $50 to $60 million apiece."

Klene said he's hoping Intel's latest round of investments will help drop the cost for EUV lithography tools substantially in the next few years.