IBM Pushes Boundaries of Chip-Making Technology

Big Blue is heading off the tiniest transistor boundaries with a new way of extending today’s chip-manufacturing technology to generate smaller chip circuits, the company said this week.

Indicating its technology may postpone a “high-risk” conversion to difficult and expensive alternatives for the semiconductor industry, IBM said its scientists have created the smallest, high-quality line patterns ever using deep-ultraviolet (DUV) 193-nanometer optical lithography, a version of today’s practice of printing circuits on chips used for computers and other electronic devices.

The development is yet another in a string of research and development efforts from companies such as IBM, Intel and Hewlett-Packard that are prolonging the life of today’s computer chip manufacturing processes and materials.

“It would be bigger news if they found that they couldn’t do it,” Gartner Research Vice President Martin Reynolds told TechNewsWorld. “We keep engineering our way around obstacles, and the industry is doing a really good job right now.”

Trouble Saving Technique

While the semiconductor industry has long relied on shrinking down the size of circuits to boost the performance of chips and devices — part of Moore’s Law which states that performance doubles roughly every 18 months — the industry faces physical limitations as chip features reach down to the size of atoms and molecules, IBM explained.

The company said its technique would allow 29.9-nanometer-wide spaced ridges for circuits, less than today’s 90-nanometer features and also below the 32-nanometer level that industry consensus has held as optical lithography’s limit.

“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.

Adding Time

Although the limitations of circuitry with today’s techniques is four or five years away, coming up with alternatives, improvements and extensions such as IBM’s is necessary now, Reynolds said.

“They’re really just making sure we see Moore’s Law continue,” he said. “All these things have to be developed years in advance.”

The laws and limitations of physics not only apply to semiconductor circuits, but to other components, such as etching and other chip features, Reynolds added.

Innovation Incentive

At the moment, the general consensus on when a costly and complex conversion to an alternative to optical lithography would be required is about 2010, according to Mercury Research President Dean McCarron.

“We keep sliding it out,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Companies such as IBM or Intel doing research and development in chip manufacturing put much of their efforts into enhancing current technologies because it does not mean “scrapping” already established technology and processes, McCarron said, adding this provides a bigger R&D payoff.

He said other technologies, such as x-ray lithography, may address the difficulty of dealing with shorter wavelengths and smaller devices, but there is more value in extending current technology.

“There are other technologies, but it’s not what’s worked best for us, yet,” he said.

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