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Tech Industry

Chip breakthrough claimed

University of Texas researchers extend standard chip production technology to the making of more powerful chips.

    Researchers at the University of Texas have developed a new chipmaking technology that will help the semiconductor industry continue to produce exponentially more powerful processors while keeping manufacturing costs in check.

    Working with DuPont Photomasks (DPMI), researchers have produced a semiconductor

    DuPont's breakthrough photomask
    DuPont's breakthrough photomask
    wafer with components that are a mere 0.08 microns wide. By contrast, cutting-edge chip production processes today use a comparatively fat 0.25-micron technology to make chips such as the newest Pentium II processors. Next-generation technology will only go as small as 0.18 micron.

    In creating the advanced chip, researchers employed standard ultraviolet light to etch the lines in which the transistors are laid--meaning that the industry doesn't have to invest in next-generation equipment using electrons or X-rays, a massively expensive proposition.

    A plant for making 0.25 micron chips now costs between $2 billion and $2.5 billion to construct. That cost is expected jump to between $3 billion and $4 billion with the next generation of plants alone. The research breakthrough means that plants using current-generation technology may be able to produce chips at least through the year 2009.

    In general, advanced production techniques allow more transistors to be crammed into the same real estate, thereby increasing the horsepower of the chip. Also, as the transistors are pushed closer together, this increases a chip's speed because the distance between the transistors is reduced.

    The new ultraviolet technology could prove critical to the continued advancement of the semiconductor industry because it may eliminate the uncertainty about new production techniques which has clouded the future of chipmaking.

    "People in the chip-manufacturing business are so excited that they can see a pathway to evolving what they are doing now rather than having to make huge shift to new technologies," says Grant Willson, professor of chemistry and chemical engineering at the University of Texas. "It would be difficult and unpleasant to make such a radical change."

    In 2003, the most powerful processors will run at 1,500 MHz and contain 18 million transistors, according to the Semiconductor Industry Association. Today's commonly used processors for desktop PCs, by contrast, have up to 7.5 million transistors and run at up to 350 MHz.

    One of the limits to current technology is the part of the manufacturing process known as "optical lithography." Chips are made by projecting patterns of light on silicon wafers. A piece of equipment called a "photomask," which is used as a very small template for the semiconductor's design.

    The light shines through the photomask and reacts with chemicals on the wafer to produce the electronic pathways on the chip. The problem to date has been finding ways to produce pathways smaller than 0.10 micron without resorting to completely new production methods.

    To overcome these hurdles, DuPont created a new kind of photomask while university researchers devised a new chemical substance that would react properly to the ever smaller beams of light that shine through the mask.