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Consortium to pursue superchip

A public-private sector effort aims for a new chip production technology using "extreme ultraviolet" waves, by 2002.

The Department of Energy, Intel, AMD, Motorola and the premier U.S.-owned research labs have formed a company that will seek to devise a new semiconductor manufacturing process resulting in smaller, faster processors by 2002.

The consortium is also tasked to keep the U.S. at the forefront of the semiconductor field worldwide, said Secretary of Energy Federico Pena, adding that its endeavor should boost revenue for domestic supercomputer makers, equipment manufacturers, and the national labs themselves.

The Extreme Ultraviolet Limited Liability Company--the name of the company formed by the government and the semiconductor makers--will be dedicated to creating a manufacturing process around "extreme ultraviolet" waves, or EUV.

EUV has a shorter wavelength than ultraviolet light, which semiconductor manufacturers now use to "mask" or map out chip designs, said Gordon Moore, chairman emeritus of Intel.

The current process yields chips with lines .25 microns across and can probably be used to make two more generations of chips with lines as thin as .18 and .13 microns. Refining the process beyond that will prove difficult because "you can't make images much thinner than the wavelength of the light making the images," Moore said. The industry will hit this barrier in mass production in six months to 2 1/2years.

EUV represents the current best alternative, Moore said. Problems have been experienced with x-rays. Electron beams are thin enough, but require manufacturers to etch one line at a time, a consuming endeavor.

"It's an extension of what's already been done," said Nathan Brookwood, a semiconductor analyst at Dataquest. "X-ray lithography, which IBM has tried, is completely different."

EUV was developed through research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and Sandia National Laboratories/California, which are participating in the company.

"If this is successful, the product will be much better supercomputers," said Bruce Tarter, a scientific representative from Lawrence Livermore. The process can also be translated to regular PCs, Tarter added.

Potentially, that also means further income for Intel, mused Chris Villard, an analyst at International Data Corporation. Proprietary chips are becoming harder to justify for supercomputers. If the consortium improves standard chip design, there is no reason to think these processors can't be used for supercomputer-class machines, mused observers. Neither Intel nor AMD have any appreciable share of the supercomputer chip market. (Intel is an investor in CNET the Computer Network.).

Under the terms of the agreement, the three semiconductor manufacturers will put up $250 million for further research and costs over the next three years. Intellectual property relating to EUV that comes out of further research becomes property of the consortium. Intellectual property that is tangential to EUV reverts to the labs.

The agreement, called a cooperative research and development agreement, or creda, is the largest the Department has ever created, said Pena.

Although the arrangement means that three major semiconductors are getting exclusive access to government-sponsored research, Pena claimed that the agreement benefits the lab. Funding for EUV projects for the most part was been phased out close to 18 months ago.

The parties further stated that safeguards have been set up in the creda to ensure that U.S. companies, or at least U.S. residents, benefit. The new technique is expected to result in a boon market for semiconductor equipment makers. To participate, an equipment maker must be of U.S. origin or at least open an office in the U.S. within two years after signing a contract to make EUV manufacturing tools.

"The government has an important role to play in facilitating the advance of technology, especially because the payoff at the end is so great," said Jeff Weir, a spokesman for the Semiconductor Industry Association. "Foreign countries know this, that's why in Korea and Japan you have direct relationships between government and industry, particularly the chip industries."

Paul Festa contributed to this article.