Breakthrough in EUV lithography

The Dutch technology group ASML has brought lithographic chip structuring using EUV radiation with a wavelength of 13.5 nm to serial production. The economic and technological potential is enormous.

Approximately 200 coal-fired power plants around the world alone are required to supply IT infrastructure. It is therefore important to develop more efficient IT hardware. A groundbreaking new development also applies here, one that Dutch technology group ASML, together with ZEISS SMT (Semiconductor Manufacturing Technology) GmbH, TRUMPF, the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Optics and Precision Engineering IOF and more than 1,000 additional partners around the world have been working on for more than two decades: EUV lithography. Thanks to the technological leap in chip structuring from argon-fluoride excimer laser with 193-nanometer (nm) wavelengths to EUV lithography with 13.5 nm, a new generation of chips can be produced; chips that take up 40% less space despite having a 20% higher output – and work with 50% more energy efficiency than their predecessors.

For a long time it looked as though the semiconductor industry would face technological limits when updating Moore’s law. But in 2019 ASML finally made a market breakthrough in EUV technology: By their own account, the Dutch company already shipped 26 EUV lithography systems to customers in the U.S. and Asia last year and recorded incoming orders of €6.2 billion in this area. Meanwhile, the systems are able to expose more than 170 wafers per hour and thus produce chips with structures only seven nanometers large.

Around 2,000 patents and 3,000 new jobs

ASML partners ZEISS, TRUMPF and Fraunhofer IOF alone, who have been nominated for the German Future Prize 2020 for their developments, have secured this technology with around 2,000 patents and created a good 3,000 new jobs. In 2019, ZEISS and TRUMPF were already able to generate a billion euros revenue with high performance lasers and optical components for EUV lithography systems. This amount is likely to rise significantly due to the high demand for ASML systems in the coming years.

The list price for the systems is around €140 billion. ASML itself is also preparing for further growth in the EUV and deep UV sector. In this context, the group acquired a stake in Zeiss SMT at the end of 2016 and recently announced the acquisition of the Berliner Glas Group.

Spectators expect that 7-nanometer chip structures will be followed by a leap to 5-nanometer structures in the coming decades. ZEISS and ASML are already working on increasing the numerical aperture of the EUV systems from 0.33 to 0.55, which promises a further 70% higher resolution at wavelengths of 8 nanometers. So, thanks to EUV lithography, Moore’s law is able to continue.

The latest generation of chips manufactured using EUV lithography fits around 10 billion transistors on a surface the size of a fingernail. As its next milestone, the semiconductor industry already has its sights set on 100 billion transistors. The ongoing development of processors, storage media and the entire electronics industry appears – at least for the foreseeable future – to know no limits. Photonics is and continues to be the key technology for this development.

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