Moore's Law needs a hero. This year, we'll see if the chip business's designated savior—extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography—is really up to the task.
After decades of bringing us the incredible shrinking transistor, chipmakers are now hard up against the limits of their printing technique: Trying to use today's ultraviolet lasers to print the next generation of circuits would be like trying to trace a fine line with a preschooler's crayon.
To get a sharp enough pencil, the semiconductor industry has turned to EUV lithography. The radiation chosen for the job has a wavelength of 13.5 nanometers, around the size of the features on the next generation of chips; today's setup, which uses light with a wavelength of 193 nm, requires a series of optical tricks to write features even twice that size. To many in the semiconductor industry, EUV lithography is the only realistic option.
But you've probably heard that line before.
Fifteen years ago, researchers predicted that by about 2006, EUV chips would roll out commercially at the 65-nm node. And yet, six years later, engineers are still struggling with the dim, finicky light source at the heart of the process—despite having spent at least US $1 billion on development.
Although EUV lithography isn't ready for prime time, the technology is "not just an R&D project anymore," insists Michael Lercel, senior director of EUV product marketing at light-source manufacturer Cymer. Starting in the second half of this year, the NXE:3300, the first EUV lithography system intended for commercial chipmaking, will begin shipping to clients. The Dutch company ASML Holding, the NXE:3300's maker and the only chip-manufacturing-tool firm making EUV tools, predicts that leading-edge manufacturers will be incorporating its system into production in 2013 or 2014.
"The industrial momentum is definitely on EUV's side," says Burn Lin, vice president of research and development at Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC), the world's biggest independent semiconductor foundry. Companies like TSMC and Intel must settle on a lithography system as many as three years before chips go into production. The unrelenting exigencies of Moore's Law demand that manufacturers crank out chips at the 14-nm node by the end of 2013 or in 2015 at the latest. To do so with EUV lithography, they need to start retooling their fabs now.
Even if ASML delivers the NXE:3300s on schedule, there's a problem. By ASML's own admission, these machines still produce chips too slowly. If engineers can't get them to pick up the pace, the resulting chips will be so expensive that chipmakers will have little choice but to abandon EUV lithography. Because the industry has already invested so much, that would be bad—bad for ASML, bad for the semiconductor industry, bad even, perhaps, for the high-tech sector that has come to take for granted Moore's Law and its biannual bounty of doubled transistor densities.
But let's not get hysterical just yet. When the NXE:3300s are delivered, EUV lithography will be put to the only test that counts, that of the market. The progress chipmakers are able to make with EUV lithography this year will determine if that billion dollars was worth it—or wasted.