Intel breathes life into Moore's Law

Using Extreme Ultraviolet Lithography, or EUV, the chipmaker may be able to save the threatened "law" that says the number of transistors on a chip doubles every 18 to 24 months.

Chipmaker Intel has ordered a test version of a new tool it says will allow the company to hurdle an impending industry-killing roadblock and continue to punch up chip performance.

The new tool uses Extreme Ultraviolet Lithography (EUV) to print extremely small circuit patterns on chips, resulting in smaller features that let chipmakers pack many more transistors onto their semiconductors. An increase in transistors basically means a corresponding leap in performance. With EUV, chipmakers could see clock speeds of 10GHz or faster--much speedier than today's quickest, 2.4GHz chips.

"The use of EUV will allow us to keep on the Moore's Law path with a new technology generation every two years," Peter Silverman, director of lithography capital equipment development at Intel, said Monday.

Moore's Law, formulated by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, has to do with the pace of chipmaking advances. It states that the number of transistors on a chip doubles every 18 to 24 months, as transistor size shrinks. But recently, the industry has worried that the law will soon collapse under actual physical burdens or economic ones. And if chips can't be made smaller or can't accommodate more transistors, the semiconductor business essentially grinds to a halt.

EUV is a new type of lithography--the process traditionally used to print circuit patterns on chips--known as photolithography. Developed by private and governmental researchers at the Livermore and Sandia national laboratories, photolithography essentially works like photography. Machines are used to shrink and then print an image of a circuit pattern on a silicon wafer. Layers of metal are then removed, or added, in a process that turns the image into a complex pattern of copper circuits. The EUV test machine will be the one taking the pictures.

The main difference between the new tool and current photolithography machines is the wavelength of the light used to create the images of the circuit patterns. EUV will allow chipmakers to use shorter wavelengths of light to create the images, and smaller wavelengths make for smaller circuits. Because of the finer wavelengths, the image of the circuit pattern in EUV lithography is shrunk by a series of mirrors. Lenses, used on current lithography machines, would distort patterns this small.

Intel will become the first chipmaker to take delivery of such a machine, which will be the first EUV beta manufacturing tool out of the factory in 2005. The first EUV machine, dubbed an alpha tool, was completed in early 2001. It has been used in testing ever since. The terms "alpha" and "beta" are often used in the computer industry to indicate how far along in tests a given product is.

If the beta tool seems like a long time in coming, it has been, Silverman said.

"Beta tools for each technology are ordered with very long lead times," he said. Mainly they require time for various refinements.

Intel won't be the only chipmaker to order EUV beta tools.

Chipmakers Advanced Micro Devices, IBM, Infineon, Micron Technologies and Motorola are all members of the EUV LLC, a consortium that pooled resources to develop the technology jointly with the U.S. government. Members of the consortium have first rights over machines.

Intel declined to say how much the beta tool cost.

Commercial production of chips using EUV should take place in about five years.

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