IBM joins push for new chipmaking process

Big Blue joins other tech giants to help develop a new chipmaking technology to build processors many times more powerful than current models.

John G. Spooner Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Spooner
covers the PC market, chips and automotive technology.
John G. Spooner
3 min read
IBM has joined other tech giants to help develop a new chipmaking technology that will allow production of computer processors many times more powerful than current models.

The company announced Monday that it has joined EUV LLC, a consortium of companies and government labs developing machines and procedures for Extreme Ultraviolet (EUV) lithography.

IBM is the last of the major chipmakers to throw in with EUV. Intel, Advanced Micro Devices, Motorola, Micron Technologies, Infineon and the federal Sandia and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories are each also part of EUV LLC.

By putting its significant weight behind EUV, IBM helps validate the technology, which most analysts say will become the main chipmaking method of the future. But IBM executives say the company is taking a more cautious approach.

"Our main reason for joining is that we would inevitably have to have a next-generation lithography technology on our roadmap," said George Gomba, senior manager of lithography technology at IBM Microelectronics Division. "Now's the right time to get involved."

However, IBM plans to continue a dual development path, investing in both EUV and another lithography technology, called electron beam projection. Electron beam lithography uses a stream of electrons, instead of light, to deposit an image of a chip feature on a silicon wafer.

"This (EUV) is one we must invest in," Gomba said. "But it's too early to pick who is the winner."

Lithography is the process of drawing circuits on silicon wafers during chip manufacturing. It is a vital part of the process, because by drawing the circuits, the manufacturer sets the stage for each layer of what will become a competed chip.

Next-generation lithography technologies such as EUV are required to keep allow chipmakers to print ever smaller features on processors. Smaller features mean more transistors--and thus more processing power--can be crammed onto a chip.

Without advances in the current lithography technology, chip making would grind to a halt by about 2005, at which time chip designs would be too small to be manufactured with current equipment.

The EUV LLC expects EUV technology to be able to yield chips that run at speeds of up to 10GHz with features as small as 30 nanometers. Today's chips, which will hit 2GHz in the second half of the year, are manufactured at 180 nanometer sizes. EUV is expected to debut in 2005 when chips hit the 70 nanometer level.

While IBM Microelectronics is giving a nod to EUV, the chipmaker continues to support electron beam lithography, the technology seen as the primary competitor to EUV, through a joint venture with Nikon.

IBM and Nikon recently detailed breakthroughs achieved with the manufacturing tools that will go into the electron beam lithography process, dubbed Prevail. Prevail is now approaching the alpha stage, where the first chip manufacturing equipment will be assembled, tested and eventually shipped to customers for testing, Hans Pfiffer, manager of electron beam technology for IBM Microelectronics' Semiconductor Research and Development Center, said in a recent interview.

The first Prevail alpha chip making equipment should appear in early 2003, which is about the time when EUV equipment will begin beta testing.

IBM Microelectronics believes the two technologies, seen as competitors by most in the industry, can be complimentary.

Pfiffer said that IBM will use electron beam and EUV in a "mix and match" chipmaking process, where EUV will be used to draw processor features in broad strokes but electron beam will be used to draw finer, more important features.

However, because electron beam can only cover a small area at one time, the tradeoff between it and EUV will be that of achieving resolution while sacrificing manufacturing speed.

"I think this is a further indication of the growing momentum to support EUV lithography," said Chuck Gwyn, general manager of EUV LLC. "We continue to look for industry support?so the more members we have the more support there is the project and the technology."

Gwyn isn't worried about electron beam projection lithography stealing the show.

"We mix and match lithography in fabs (chip manufacturing plants) today, so it wouldn't surprise me to see that in the future you find the use of EUV" alongside electron beam lithography and current processes, he said.