Motorola Semiconductors claimed last week that it has become the first company to produce a 0.1 micron microprocessor using a standard 0.18 micron silicon production process.
The move is significant because it looks set to bring about the development of so-called sub-wavelength chips earlier than anticipated, unlocking the potential to create higher-performance chips at lower prices.
Rivals are expected to match the technology within six to nine months.
Franz Riedlberger, market development and engineering manager at Motorola, said the new breed of semiconductors will go into production by the end of this year.
The breakthrough provides an early solution to the problem in the industry of how to design and manufacture chips with feature sizes that are smaller than the wavelength of the optical lithography tools (248 nanometers) used to transfer the designs onto silicon wafers.
This challenge, known as post-optical lithography, has led to the development of a number of other new technologies, including research using extreme ultraviolet (EUV) light in the etching process.
EUV is still in its research stages, with the first commercial applications likely by the end of 2000.
‘Motorola are showing that they don’t need to start over again to get to the next density of integrated circuits, but they can do it by pushing existing techniques a little harder and stretching things a bit,’ said Tom Starnes, principal analyst at US-based Dataquest.
Normally, at the 0.1 micron scale, a chip’s features become distorted or disappear, adversely affecting the yield and degrading chip performance.
Fabrication of the Motorola 0.1 micron microprocessor was achieved using phase shifting and optical proximity correction technology from partner company NumericTech alongside Motorola’s own processing.
Riedlberger said this technology was not a stopgap before EUV comes on stream, but is a technology that can be used with today’s manufacturing techniques as well as with EUV.
‘It will allow us to better utilise the next generation’s manufacturing technology,’ he said. ‘It enables you to take into account the distortions that you will have at this scale and correct for them in advance.’
Using EUV, future chips could become as small as 0.8 micron. ‘About 15 years ago people wrote papers saying they had proved this was impossible to achieve,’ Riedlberger added.