IMAGINE owning a desktop computer as powerful as today's supercomputers. A computer in which each memory chip can hold tens of gigabytes of information. A computer that can recognize speech in context, hold an intelligent conversation, and translate languages. Now, imagine driving a car that can follow verbal commands, visualize the surrounding traffic environment, sound an alert upon encountering hazardous conditions, and provide high-resolution "heads-up" displays of local roadways and intersections.|
Such possibilities seem as unreal today as the idea of a "personal" computer seemed 30 years ago. To a large degree, today's technological miracles-and tomorrow's technical dreams-are the result of the semiconductor industry's efforts to continually shrink the size of the basic elements (transistors, capacitors, resistors, etc.) that make up a computer chip. When chip features get smaller, speed, reliability, functionality, and efficiency all improve, while costs decrease.
For the past 30 years, optical lithography has been the process by which these features are printed on semiconductor substrates to produce integrated circuits. This optical process, however, is rapidly approaching its limits. The international semiconductor industry must decide-and soon-which next-generation lithographic technology it will embrace for manufacturing chips in the first two decades of the 21st century.
In 1997, three Department of Energy laboratories-Lawrence Livermore, Lawrence Berkeley, and Sandia- joined together in the Virtual National Laboratory (VNL) to develop one such promising technology: extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUVL). Each national laboratory contributes unique expertise to the program: Sandia brings system design and process development, Lawrence Berkeley brings precision metrology and patterning, and Lawrence Livermore brings expertise in complex multilayer reflective coatings, optics design, and precision engineering. To fully develop and help commercialize EUVL, the VNL is partnering with an industry consortium that includes some of the country's leading semiconductor manufacturers. The article beginning on p. 4 gives an overview of the VNL-EUVL program and Lawrence Livermore's contributions to it.
The VNL has been extremely successful to date. For instance, the three laboratories have garnered numerous R&D 100 awards as a direct result of technologies developed for EUVL. Even more to the point, a year ago, the international semiconductor community voted EUVL "the most promising technology" for printing future generations of computer chips with features as small as and smaller than 70 nanometers. (Current features are 180 nanometers.) The fact that EUVL technology is extendable is a major attribute.
Why all the interest in making something that's already so small even smaller?
For the VNL, helping to power the information age through the development of ever-smaller chips that make computers more compact yet more powerful furthers our nation's economic objectives. The VNL's efforts also support the national laboratories' missions in national security, proliferation prevention, energy, and environmental monitoring through advances in micromachining, sensor technology, precision measurement, and supercomputing.
To answer the question in a larger context, we need only look around us. Much of the modern world and its economic well-being are made possible by the computer chip. According to Department of Commerce data from 1998, the semiconductor industry is the United States' largest manufacturing industry in terms of value added, contributing 20 percent more to the economy than its nearest rival. As impressive as this figure is, it doesn't begin to explain the role semiconductors have played in enabling the revolution in today's electronics and information technologies.
The EUVL technology being developed by the VNL and its industry partners could take semiconductor manufacturing to the end of the "silicon cycle," sometime in the second decade of the 21st century. Then, it is predicted, the computer industry will have fully exploited silicon as a substrate material. It will have crammed as many features on a silicon chip as the material can support, and it will be time to dream again. Lawrence Livermore and the VNL hope to again play a significant part in making those new dreams come true.