Group bets on super-chip technology Md. consortium hopes to develop tool to manufacture semiconductor of future

August 26, 1993|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

If Walter Finkelstein's hunch is right, the two-person office he formally opens today in Columbia is the beginning of an $800 million high-technology business centered in Maryland.

Advanced Lithographic Group, a nonprofit consortium backed by investments by state and federal governments, has jumped into the race to develop the manufacturing technology that will create a new breed of ultra-fast, compact computer chips. The goal is a tool that can manufacture chips capable of carrying 1 billion bits apiece -- more than 12 times the fastest chip in the testing labs today.

These super-semiconductors are a prerequisite for the development of many of the razzle-dazzle technologies that are expected to become commonplace in the 21st century. Such advanced applications as virtual reality, interactive television and hand-held "electronic newspapers" are currently constrained by the capacity of existing semiconductors -- thumbnail-sized storage devices for electronic information.

The Columbia consortium, which includes private companies, defense agencies and universities, is betting on a technology called ion projection lithography (IPL) as the country's best hope to keep the production of the next generation of semiconductors on American shores.

IPL is one of several technologies that are competing to become the standard manufacturing technique for the billion-bit chips that semiconductor companies expect to be producing by the end of the decade. A bit is a single unit of information in the language of computers.

If IPL pays off, the Advanced Lithographic Group could spawn a Maryland-based manufacturing industry that could employ more than 300 persons directly and create many more jobs in spinoff companies, Mr. Finkelstein said.

But if a different technology prevails, the consortium could prove to be a false start that costs the federal government $7.5 million and the state government an expected $600,000.

Mr. Finkelstein, a 53-year-old Rockville entrepreneur who is president of Advanced Lithographic Group, is convinced that ion projection is the technology most likely to succeed.

"We believe there are no scientific or research problems left," he said. "We see this as an engineering and not a research problem."

Ion projection lithography

IPL is a technology that imprints circuitry patterns on a computer chip by directing a powerful beam of hydrogen ions -- atoms stripped of their electrons -- at the blank chip.

The ions are propelled through a computer-generated stencil that creates the image to be imprinted onto the silicon wafer. Much as light creates photographs when it hits film, the ion beam creates images on the chips when it strikes the chemical coating on the blank chips.

If IPL can reach the level of precision its backers claim, it would give it a shot at superseding the current technology, which uses optical lithography.

"Optical lithography has to reach its limit because it's way beyond the laws of physics," said Eric Winkler, director of communications for Semiconductor Equipment and Materials International (SEMI), the industry trade association. Ion beams have a much shorter wavelength, which lets them pass through narrower holes and write with thinner lines than the standard light waves used in optical technology.

Peter Dunn, senior news editor of Solid State Technology, said that while IPL is a contender, it's not the favorite in the race.

"It's a little like boxing. Optical technology is the champion. In order to dethrone it, it's not just enough to be a little bit better. You've got to have a decisive victory," Mr. Dunn said.

Other competition could come from technologies based on X-rays, ultraviolet radiation and electron beams, he said.

Mr. Finkelstein is confident, however.

"We'll have a tool to prove our technology within 3 1/2 years," he said. "We'll be able to start manufacturing a tool within five years."

State, federal support

If Advanced Lithographic Group gets to the point where it has a tool to license for manufacture, it will be made in Maryland under an agreement with the state Department of Economic and Employment Development, which has provided $300,000 in seed money this year and could provide another $300,000 in fiscal 1994.

Mr. Finkelstein said he envisioned a manufacturing operation with more than 300 employees, in addition to more than 30 at ALG.

Although the Advanced Lithographic Group now has just two staff members and some consultants, it has managed to attract some high-powered members and a substantial infusion of public money.

Members of the consortium include AT&T Bell Laboratories, Cornell University, Texas Instruments, the Army Electronic Technology Device Laboratory, the University of Maryland and an Austrian company, Ionen Mikrofrakations Systeme GmbH, which developed the key technology.

The consortium is primarily being bankrolled by the Pentagon's Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA) to the tune of $5 million this year, with an option for $7 million next year. In addition, UM's Electrical Engineering Department is receiving a $7.5 million Defense Department grant to conduct research on ion projection as part of the project.According to Brian Darmody, assistant to the president of the University of Maryland, the university's work for the group has already made it possible for UM to attract two of the leading ion-beam technology experts in the country to its faculty. If the technology wins acceptance, the university could become a national leader in the field of semiconductor research, he said.

Mr. Finkelstein is confident that will happen.

"If this works as well as we anticipate, it could be an $800 million business," he said.

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