Hewlett-Packard and Nanolithosolutions say they have a machine that will let semiconductor manufacturers produce chips sporting wires measuring a few atoms wide.
And the device takes only a few minutes to install.
The machine is a system for imprint lithography. Imprint lithography sounds like what it is: A mold with an intricate pattern is pressed into a substrate, which creates a pattern. The grooves and channels created in the substrate are then filled with metal to make wires.
What makes imprint lithography different from a waffle iron or a rubber stamp are the dimensions. The HP-Nanolitho system is capable of creating grooves that will measure as small as 15 nanometers, smaller than the width of wires in today's chip. The mold, or module, does not make grooves in silicon, but in a thin layer of polymer on top of the silicon.
But just as important as the width of the grooves it creates, the system can be incorporated easily into conventional chipmaking processes, the companies said. The mold, or module, is the same size as the mask aligner, a piece of machinery used to create circuit patterns in chips today. (The module also contains a pneumatic engine that presses the mold into the wafer.) Thus, chipmakers will not have to retrofit their labs to begin experimenting with the machine, which eases the adoption cycle.
"It takes about 10 minutes to put in," said Bo Pi, CEO of Nanolitho. "You can remove it, and in five minutes you are back to normal."
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Hard-drive manufacturers are expected to start using imprint lithography on patterned media hard drives, which may hit the market in about five years. Many semiconductor makers, however, remain skeptical. Chipmakers are notoriously conservative when it comes to adopting new lithography techniques.
Likely early customers
Still, HP and Nanolitho believe that the relatively low cost of the device will attract university research departments and others. These customers will likely buy units to experiment with, and, if all goes well, incorporate them into manufacturing.
"The wide range of users is huge. We're talking about electronics manufacturers. We're talking about optics and photonics. We're talking about medical research," said Stan Williams, director of the Quantum Science Research group and senior fellow at HP Labs.
The technology that will be marketed by Nanolitho is actually a fourth generation of a system that HP has been tinkering with for 10 years, Williams added. In that time, HP has reduced the size of the machine so that it fits in the mask reticle.
Nanolitho has already booked one confirmed order with a customer and will enter beta testing with others. The company was founded by Pi and Yong Chen, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles and a former member of HP Labs. HP has an equity stake in the company. Further financial details were not released.
Besides selling imprint lithography machines, Nanolitho will make the intricate molds for customers. Creating a pattern on a mold can actually cost more than an imprint machine, Pi said. The pattern on the mold gets etched through electron beam lithography, a technique that creates very precise lines but is difficult to employ in mass manufacturing. A single mold, once produced, can then be used to pop out vast numbers of identical chips.
Nanonex, which was spun out of Princeton University and Molecular Imprints in Texas, also produces imprint lithography technology.
Like Microsoft, IBM and other high-tech companies, HP has been scouring its laboratories and patent portfolio in an effort to gain more revenue through licensing its technology.
One of HP's more futuristic ideas is the crossbar latch, which could allow lattices of wires connected by molecules to perform calculations.
The crossbar latch and other futuristic circuits, Williams said, were made by the imprint lithography machines created by HP.