In what can only be good news for Intel, AMD and other chipmakers, IBM Corp said its researchers have made a breakthrough that could delay the switch to alternative, very expensive chip-making gear.
Researchers at IBM’s Almaden Research Center in Silicon Valley have developed a chip-making tool, dubbed Nemo, that can help print circuits that are 29.9 nanometers wide. Currently, the semiconductor industry employs manufacturing equipment to make chips in the 65-nm or larger nodes.
The research could revitalize Moore’s Law, the observation by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore that the complexity of chips doubles about every 18 months.
Continually shrinking circuits have driven better performance and higher functionality of chips. In essence, for years Moore’s Law has been the sustaining force of the ever-growing semiconductor industry.
Chipmakers have invested millions of dollars into developing and upgrading chip-making tools, known as deep-ultraviolet optical lithography, to create smaller chips, at chip fabrication plants that cost about $1bn to build. Immersion lithography tools, which beam light through stencils to create the patterns on chips, have been used for many years.
But the tools previously were thought to be limited in their ability to print increasingly smaller circuits. IBM’s research suggests otherwise.
Deep-ultraviolet optical lithography is essentially used to print circuits’ patterns on chips. IBM’s development work created circuits with spaced ridges, at just 29.9-nm wide, are less than one-third the size of 90-nm features that currently are in mass production.
They also are smaller than the 32 nanometers that the semiconductor industry had previously thought was the limit for optical lithography techniques.
Our goal is to push optical lithography as far as we can so the industry does not have to move to any expensive alternatives until absolutely necessary, said Robert Allen, manager of lithography materials at IBM’s Almaden Research Center.
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.
IBM’s work, which was done in conjunction with local company JSR Micro, was based on so-called high-index liquid imaging technology. It promises to extend current optical lithography tools through the 45- and 32-nm nodes for semiconductors. Today, the bulk of chips are made in the 90-nm manufacturing node, with the latest products in the 65-nm node.
At the very least, it seems IBM’s research will buy Moore’s Law another few years. And give chip makers some breathing space before they are forced to create new types of tools to build smaller chips.
Technical details of the research will be presented at the SPIF Microlithography conference in San Jose, California this week.