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

“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

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

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.

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