Next generation of microchips Industry: For microchip makers to capitalize on the demands for smarter and smaller products, they must develop an even more efficient chip.

July 15, 1996|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

LIVERMORE, Calif. -- If there are more powerful computers, smarter telephones and niftier electronic toys in your life these days, you can thank the relentless miniaturization of the silicon "brains" that control them.

These are the microchips -- the tiny, programmable devices that manipulate data stored or entered elsewhere into something meaningful. Crowded with complex circuits and microscopic switches called transistors, they control our computers, run our microwave ovens and adjust the fuel mixture in our cars.

But if microchip makers hope to keep up with demands for even smarter and smaller products in the 21st century, they will have to produce a new generation of chips. This one will have to shrink 50 million silicon transistors into a fingernail-sized space where "only" 5 million would fit today, industry leaders have concluded.

The manufacturers want to start producing the new generation of chips by 2007, but their engineers have run up against the laws of physics.

The light used to inscribe chip circuits today has a wavelength wider than the ultra-fine lines the future demands. It would be like attempting calligraphy with a broom.

If they're going to draw the new circuits, chip makers say, they need a new set of tools.

"The industry relies on its ability to shrink the feature sizes on these chips," said James Glaze, vice president for technology with the Semiconductor Industry Association. "It's absolutely essential for the sake of being competitive. We cannot be competitive if we are one generation behind the rest of the world."

The industry's health is no small matter. It employed 241,000 people in the United States last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, making it larger than steel, which had 239,300 employees. U.S-based chip companies logged $60 billion in sales in 1995.

To get the chip-making tools they need, industry leaders have asked America's government-funded national defense laboratories to develop a new technology that uses extreme ultraviolet (EUV) light, with a wavelength capable of drawing lines as small as 0.1 micron -- which is one-thousandth the diameter of a human hair.

"The labs are working on technology that industry cannot afford to work on," said Richard H. Stulen of the Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore. "They [private industry] have a hard time working on anything more than a year out."

Supported by $10 million in federal funding, Sandia scientists have been collaborating with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and several commercial partners to demonstrate how EUV chip-making tool could be built.

It's called the National Extreme UV Lithography Program. Its industrial advisory board includes representatives from Lucent Technologies (formerly AT&T Bell Laboratories), Intel, the Sematech consortium and other big-time players in the semiconductor industry. It will be their role to take the experimental technology, once it has been proved, and adapt it for commercial production.

Glaze called the project very important: "There's not much technology on the horizon other than EUV that really shows a great deal of promise."

Sandia and the Lawrence Livermore lab across the street are sprawling, high-security research campuses bordered by high fences and surrounded by the hilly wine and cattle country southeast of San Francisco.

Their scientists developed and maintain America's nuclear arsenal and worked on the high-energy laser systems at the heart of the Strategic Defense Initiative, or "star wars" anti-ballistic missile defense system. Both are also doing research in support of the nation's economic competitiveness.

Stulen, who heads Sandia's portion of the project, acknowledged that some in Congress see this sort of federal research as corporate welfare. But he disputes that. "We are creating jobs in the future," he said. "That's in government's best interests."

Advances in the speed and power of micro-electronics fuel a vast electronics industry employing millions. Old chips are quickly overtaken by faster, more powerful ones.

The Atari games and simple home computers of the 1970s were controlled by chips with 10s of thousands of transistors. But they became junk in the 1980s when models appeared with chips packed with 100s of thousands of transistors. Later, software makers and consumers demanded the computing power in faster processors, such as Intel's 486 and Pentium chips, which are built with transistors numbered in the millions.

The acceleration in chip complexity shows no sign of stopping if scientists can break the physical barriers of current technology.

In chip design, smaller is faster, because electronic signals don't have as far to travel. Smaller chips also require less electricity. Miniaturization enables designers to put more complex circuitry into a smaller space and to produce it at lower cost.

But the miniaturization of chip components is limited by the size of the smallest line, or "feature," that can be etched on the silicon.

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