To bring their solution to market two UW engineers have launched a startup, Zplasma, that aims to produce the high-energy light needed to etch the next generation of microchips.
"In order to get smaller feature sizes on silicon, the industry has to go to shorter wavelength light," said Uri Shumlak, a UW professor of aeronautics and astronautics. “We’re able to produce that light with enough power that it can be used to manufacture microchips.”
The UW beam lasts up to 1,000 times longer than competing technologies and provides more control over the million-degree plasma that produces the light.
The electronics industry is trying to produce this extreme ultraviolet light in various ways. One takes a droplet of tin and shoots it with a laser to make plasma that releases a brief spark of light. But so far this spark is too brief. Chip manufacturers use a $100 million machine to bounce light off a series of mirrors and eventually project the light onto a silicon wafer; each step absorbs some of the light's energy.
"Over the past decade, the primary issue with these extreme ultraviolet light sources is they just can't produce enough power," Shumlak said. "It's a stumbling block for the whole semiconductor industry."
Fusion scientists, it turns out, are plasma experts. The hydrogen plasma in the sun is so hot that hydrogen nuclei fuse together and release energy. Scientists around the world, including at the UW, are working to replicate this on Earth. A fusion reactor would use hydrogen as its fuel and emit helium as a waste product, a technically challenging but clean source of energy.
The UW group's specialty is a lower-cost version of a fusion reactor that uses currents flowing through the material, rather than giant magnets, to contain the million-degree plasma. Their method also produces plasma that is stable and long-lived.
"It's a completely different way to make the plasma that gives you much more control," said Brian Nelson, a UW research associate professor of electrical engineering.The first time they triggered the experiment in 1999, an engineer looking through the glass said, "That was really bright!" That was when the proverbial light bulb went off, Nelson said, and the team began to explore applications for bright high-energy light.
"That translates directly into more light output, more power depositing on the wafer, such that you can move it through in some reasonable amount of time," Shumlak said.
An initial grant from the UW's Center for Commercialization allowed the team to verify that it could produce 13.5-nanometer light. A gift last fall from the Washington Research Foundation helped the team shrink the equipment from the size of a broomstick to a new version the size of a pin, which can produce a sharp beam.
The company was established last year with help from the UW's Center for Commercialization and Henry Berg, a technology entrepreneur who met the researchers through the center's Entrepreneurs in Residence program. Berg is now CEO of Zplasma.
The company is seeking "smart money" from corporate investors who can integrate the new technology with existing industrial processes.
"I hope this gets implemented into the industry and has an impact," Shumlak said.
The group will continue its fusion research project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. Raymond Golingo, a UW research scientist in aeronautics and astronautics, is co-author of the patent for the technology issued in 2008.
For more information, contact Shumlak at 206-616-1986 or firstname.lastname@example.org; Nelson at 206-543-7143 or email@example.com; and Berg at firstname.lastname@example.org. Shumlak will be on travel July 5-20 but can be reached by email.
Hannah Hickey | EurekAlert!
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