The semiconductor industry has invested huge amounts of money in future lithographic techniques leading to pattern generation with a resolution of only several nanometers. But now, with a few talented researchers and an investment of only 2.3 million euros, a European team has developed a new nanolithography tool, according to CCN News. This new tool, which may lead to the Next Generation Lithography (NGL) technology, the holy grail of the semiconductor industry, was the goal of the SOUVENIR project. If this project has a nice name, it is in fact an acronym for "Soft UV Enhanced Nanoimprint," which doesn't sound as poetic. Anyway, there are still problems to solve before this new technology can be used by the industry: it is currently too slow and limited to six inch wafers. But I'm sure that people at Intel and other large companies are carefully watching the arrival of this new nanotechnology tool. Read more...
But first, why NGL technology is the holy grail of the semiconductor industry?
It will allow rapid, large-scale manufacture of modern microchips at a sub-50nm scale. Industry giant Intel has spent 15 years and millions of dollars looking for it. A small team, but brilliant team of dedicated researchers in Europe may have found the solution in three years at a cost of €2,300,000.
It will take a few years more research to know whether SOUVENIR's work will lead to viable NGL, but even with its first generation tool the SOUVENIR team have already generated remarkable results and a new product on the brink of commercialization.
So how does this new technique work and why are its costs relatively low?
The SOUVENIR project developed a new technique to create those patterns, one that is low cost and, comparatively, low tech. In a first step the substrate was coated with a low viscosity, UV-curable resist. The resist is simply a UV-sensitive chemical layered onto the substrate. They then used a soft polymer mould, called an elastomer, pressed against the resist-coated substrate, called imprinting, followed by the UV photopolymerisation, or curing, of the resist.
This costs less than other photolithographic techniques. Because the mould is pressed against the resist, the system does not require the extremely expensive 'deep' UV light sources used in the semiconductor industry.
Below is a photograph of the Advanced Soft UV Nanoimprint Tool used for this project, the EVG 620 (Credit: SOUVENIR).
As I mentioned above, there are still a number of hurdles to overcome.
"There a still problems with that particular technique," says Dr Bender. "The quartz approach only works with a substrate of one square inch, but we can use the elastomer mould on a six inch wafer," says Dr Markus Bender, researcher at German company, Applied Micro-and Optoelectronics (AMO GmbH), and coordinator of the SOUVENIR project. Furthermore, while quartz could address the precision issues the technique is currently too slow for large-scale semiconductor companies.
But Dr Bender believes that with a commitment to research these hurdles could be overcome. "This is the first generation of the tool we developed and, with work, we can in principle get much better, faster and more scalable results," says Dr Bender.
For more information about this NGL project, here are two links to recent related papers found on the AMO web site, "Fabrication of Nanostructures using a UV-based imprint technique" (PDF format, 5 pages, 639 KB) and "High resolution lithography with PDMS molds " (PDF format, 4 pages, 502 KB).
Sources: CCN News, August 30, 2005; and various web sites
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