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Wednesday, Sep 28, 2022

ASML’s Microchip-Making Scanner May Prove That ‘No Job Is Too Small’

If you want to compete in the Indy 500, you need speed, power and efficiency. You qualify for the race by driving your highly specialized car at roughly 230 mph for four laps (10 miles). Your machine has to perform flawlessly.

If you want to etch tiny circuits on microchips, you need to hit your numbers, too.

You have to operate your scanner at 250 watts, and you need to burn through a whole wafer of microchip material in less than 30 seconds before going on to the next wafer. Harder still, you have to do it under factory conditions — not in a laboratory.

ASML Holding NV has been turning up the power on its next-generation microchip-making scanner — building up to racing speed, as it were. The company, which makes a key component of the system in Rancho Bernardo, is getting closer to its goal of operating at 250 watts efficiently on the factory floor. Such power is necessary if ASML is to follow through on its promise to customers: to provide equipment that can etch 125 wafers per hour.

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ASML operates the former Cymer business, which builds the powerful laser used to generate “extreme ultraviolet” light — wavelengths slightly longer than X-rays — needed to produce microchips with circuits as small as 7 nanometers, and even smaller. For comparison, Qualcomm Inc.’s Snapdragon 835 chip, which powers the Samsung Galaxy S8 and other advanced phones, has circuits 10 nanometers wide. The double helix of a DNA strand is about 2.5 nanometers wide.

Ultimately, chipmakers want to etch circuits 5 nanometers wide and smaller, eventually as small as 1 nanometer. ASML sees extreme ultraviolet (EUV) technology as a way to accomplish that feat.

As yet, the EUV machines have not been used commercially. That might happen this year, or in 2019.

Netherlands-based ASML recently announced total 2017 sales of $11.2 billion and earnings of $2.6 billion. Helping with the latest revenue was an unexpected sale of two EUV systems. ASML added 10 extreme ultraviolet systems to its order book.

ASML’s chip-making scanner is about the size of a school bus. The business shipped four EUV units in 2016 and shipped 10 (to multiple customers) in 2017. Its order book is full for 2018, when it plans to ship 22 EUV systems. The business plans to ship at least 30 in 2019.

ASML says it has about 100 jobs in Rancho Bernardo that it’s trying to fill, and it’s continuing to upgrade its North County factory and offices. The EUV business is growing and the older business that ASML inherited from Cymer — deep ultraviolet light sources or DUV — is also growing at a slower rate, a spokeswoman said.

In the near future, chipmakers might produce advanced microchips with a mix of technologies. A few small-geometry layers will be etched with an advanced EUV laser. The rest — with larger dimensions — will be etched with the more-established DUV laser. One trick will be getting both layers to line up exactly. The needed overlap is about 2 nanometers, and ASML has reportedly achieved it.

When was the last time you tried to align something to the width of a DNA molecule?


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