Since the EXEPT project began in February 2009, main project participant ASML have seen their stock value quadruple and continue to see a strong upward trend despite having conducted R&D in the EXEPT project during a recession. The success of EXEPT has led to the development of the ASML NXE:3300B Extreme Ultra Violet (EUV) lithography tool. The tool has drawn considerable attention from buyers who want the technology to be developed even faster after seeing its results to expedite wafer and EUV research and development. With 11 units already sold for 60-70 million euros a piece and seven commitments for future orders, ASML has taken their success to another level with the creation of the Customer Co-Investment Program. Customers like Intel are committing hundreds of millions to the future of ASML.
Gordon E. Moore, founder of Intel, first observed a trend that says that every two years the number of transistors on chips double; an observation that today is called Moore’s Law. By making even smaller transistors, it’s possible to continue on the path set by Moore. For EXEPT project coordinator Gerold Alberga, choosing to develop Extreme Ultra Violet (EUV) lithography technology is the ‘best option to continue advancing toward smaller transistors on chips.’ The new Extreme Ultra Violet photolithography technique is going a long way to accomplishing the feat of having more transistors onto chips that are also gradually getting smaller.
WHAT DOES PHOTOLITHOGRAPHY DO?
Photolithography (shortened to lithography) exposes a sensitive piece of chemical-coated silicon wafer to pre-designed patterns of light (in this case Extreme Ultra Violet light) which is then repeated numerous times. When finished the process reveals microscopic layers of a type of transistor. Similar to painting, the EUV machine paints the transistors with light onto the wafer. But at a certain point, lithography machines cannot paint such fine details without needing to work in a deeper portion of the light spectrum with EUV.
‘A WHOLE ECOSYSTEM IS NEEDED TO GET EUV TO BE SUCCESSFUL.'
The big difference between EUV and other lithography technologies is that EUV goes deeper into the light spectrum. In fact, if it went any further it would be X-Ray technology. This special type of light can only operate in a vacuum environment as even air disturbs its transmission on to the wafer. In the past, lasers were directed with massive optical devices, but now Extreme Ultra Violet Light uses advanced mirror optics designed by project partner Carl Zeiss, a renowned German optics manufacturer. These concave and perfectly designed mirrors refract the EUV light with less absorption than ordinary optics. One microscopic flaw or dust particle on the surface of the mirror can be devastating. For this reason, EUV is extreme in its requirements to be conducted in a work environment that is clean and free of loose particles, even outside the vacuum. These special environments are called clean rooms and are essential to the technology.
While clean rooms have always been needed to create chips, EUV require another level of cleanliness. Since humans shed roughly two billion skin cells every day and carry any number of particles on their selves, special clothing, gloves, hair nets and face masks are worn to limit contamination by workers in these cleanrooms. Other necessary precautions require innovations to create an environment that the EUV machines can operate in. An example being the air filtration systems that make the air in the clean rooms a staggering 10,000 times cleaner than the air outdoors; every two minutes the air in the room is filtered and exchanged completely. All these precautions help develop the highest quality EUV tools that are shipped around the world to buyers who want the best possible photolithography technology they can get their hands on.
WHAT CAN BE MADE WITH LITHOGRAPHY TOOLS?
Chips made with lithography tools are used in countless electronic devices, but can be essentially broken down into three categories: inside personal computers; memory in various electronic devices and special MEMS chips such as GPS, microphones and gyroscopes that do more specific tasks. Nearly every electronic device you use has some of its key components beginning somewhere under a type of lithography machine.
The EXEPT project involved a consortium of participants from Belgium, France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. This immense international undertaking required significant political and financial support. Through national funding bodies, participants received the support needed to complete the project on time. Germany alone, through the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), supported well over ten German companies with some 16 million euro. Lasting a little over three years these latest NXE:3300B EUV tools are sought after by world leaders in the semiconductor industry and its customers purchase the product to last and maintain the utmost precision quality. ‘Our data shows that only 5-10% of all the systems that we have shipped since 1984 have been decommissioned. The rest continue to produce chips’ says ASML spokesman, Niclas Mika. All lithography machines are considered strategic assets of the companies that use them. They set the production speed and quality of any product they create utilising silicon based microchips.
‘AN OPEN INNOVATION NETWORK IS CRUCIAL TO SUCCESS‘
Creating the latest in EUV technology required an international collaborative effort made possible by EUREKA’s open innovation network. Participants could both rely on and trust each other with sensitive trade secrets and intellectual property exchanges. In addition, the availability of public funding and political support through EUREKA allowed companies to sustain their R&D ambitions and continue on to create world leading technologies. When asked who ASML’s EUV competition is, John West of VLSI Research Europe stated ‘there aren’t any’; a revelation that shows that the project has developed a clear market advantage for ASML and its partners. EUV tools developed as a result of the project are expected to change the electronics market substantially. Just about anything with a computer chip could have its prices drastically cut. Some even speculate that new technologies like tablet computers could be half the cost of today once EUV has been fully implemented.