Press release | 24.4.2018
Munich, 24 April 2018 - Today, microchips are found everywhere - in computers, robots, cars, smartphones and household devices. For these machines to perform the increasingly complex tasks of our digital age, semiconductor companies need to produce smaller and more powerful chips. The key invention of Dutch systems engineer Erik Loopstra, Dutch-Russian physicist Vadim Banine and their research and engineering teams in the field of extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUVL) have made it possible to create geometric patterns on silicon wafers - the basis of the microchip - at a previously unprecedented level of detail. Headed for industrial-scale manufacturing this year, EUVL uses high-energy sources to generate extreme ultraviolet light for the production of even faster microprocessors.
For this achievement, Erik Loopstra and Vadim Banine have been nominated as finalists for the European Inventor Award 2018 in the category "Industry". The winners of this year's edition of the EPO's annual innovation prize will be announced at a ceremony in Paris, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, on 7 June 2018.
"The work of Erik Loopstra, Vadim Banine and their research and engineering teams shows that Europe is a fertile ground for advancing integrated chip technology in the digital age," said EPO President Benoît Battistelli. "By combining their respective skills as a physicist and systems engineer, Banine and Loopstra have significantly contributed to developing a technology for industrial use that will help manufacture the next generations of microchips."
Since the 1960s, computing power - measured in terms of the density of transistors on a single microchip - has roughly doubled every two years, as observed by Moore's Law, the prediction made by US engineer and Intel Corporation co-founder Dr Gordon Moore. Integrated circuit chips have advanced from containing thousands of transistors in the 1970s to many billions today. One of the main drivers of the development is a process called photolithography that uses laser light to "etch" geometric structures onto silicon wafers. "Each chip consists of billions of transistors, so you cannot craft them with the hand," explains Vadim Banine. "Our machine is like an inverted slide projector. The slide (which we call a ‘mask') contains areas that transmit light and areas that block light. By beaming light through this mask and shrinking the resulting pattern down with optics, we can focus it onto the photosensitive silicon wafer. The smaller the wavelength [of the laser light], the finer the pattern we can produce."
Although manufacturing methods now employ deep ultraviolet lasers to make increasingly detailed circuitry, this technology is reaching its technical and economic limits. The problem is that the ultraviolet light employed in this technique has a wavelength of 193 nanometres. While complementary technologies, such as using a thin layer of water as an additional lens (immersion lithography), now make it possible to create chip features at scales below 45 nanometres, the wavelength of ultraviolet light is simply too large - and requires too many complicated, costly and time-consuming extra steps - for the extremely delicate work that is necessary to manufacture future generations of powerful microchips.
The physicist and systems engineer led international teams of scientists and engineers at Dutch semiconductor equipment manufacturer ASML and its optics manufacturer ZEISS on the development of a completely new technology, called Extreme Ultraviolet Lithography, or EUVL for short, and used these principles to produce a state-of-the-art lithography chipmaking machine. First, they needed a new light source, which the team achieved by firing a high-powered laser at miniscule drops of tin to create plasma at temperatures around 500 000 degrees Celsius. This ultra-hot plasma emits extreme ultraviolet light at a wavelength of 13.5 nanometres, nearly the wavelength of X-rays, which is then guided onto a chip's silicon layer by an optical system with ultra-smooth mirrors based on multi-layer coatings. Second, because the extreme ultraviolet light can be absorbed by air, the inventors and their team created a vacuum environment that reduces contamination - caused by lumps of material 1 000 times thinner than human hair - to almost zero. "It meant that we had to go into high vacuum systems, which nobody did before," says Banine.
The resulting process not only upholds Moore's Law, but also makes it possible to create chips with details as small as 8 nanometres. After two decades of development in close cooperation with research partners and suppliers, ASML brought EUVL to market in a complete product in 2017. In production lines, this patented, state-of-the-art EUV lithography system will be used for the most detailed and precise layers of a chip. These layers are part of a stack of up to 100 layers per chip created by a mix of different types of lithography. The process is designed to produce 7-nanometre chips, marking a generational shift over older methods, which are more time-consuming than EUVL and require several passes through the lithographic printing. The technology promises to save chipmakers time and money in the production of the next generations of chips that will drive innovations in fields such as consumer electronics, health, entertainment, autonomous driving, robotics and Artificial Intelligence.
Fuelled by the huge demand for microchips, the global semiconductor industry is booming. In 2017, worldwide sales reached EUR 334 billion, an increase of 20% over the previous year, according to figures published by the World Semiconductor Trade Statistics organisation. While the companies that design and manufacture these chips are primarily US and Asian, the high-tech enabling this production is made in Europe. Some of the world's largest semiconductor manufacturers plan to adopt ASML's patented EUVL platform within the next two years. ASML stated in January 2018 that it had shipped 10 EUVL machines in the fourth quarter of 2017 and has another 28 systems on backorder.
Patent license holder ASML is the world's largest lithography systems company with an estimated 85% share of the market last year in terms of revenue. Strategically located in the Brainport Eindhoven region, a major hub for the European tech industry, ASML emerged in 1984 as a joint venture between two Dutch companies, Advanced Semiconductor Materials International (ASMI) and Koninklijke Philips N.V. In 2017, publicly traded ASML employed about 19 200 people worldwide - with over 4 000 working on EUVL technology alone. The company has invested more than EUR 8 billion in research and development since 2004 and built up a strong intellectual property base supported by more than 10 000 patents. ASML has also entered into a strategic partnership with ZEISS. The company supplies optical systems for ASML's wafer scanners, and ASML holds 24.9% ownership in the relevant business segment at ZEISS.
As systems engineer at ASML for more than 25 years, Erik Loopstra, who holds a master's degree in mechanical engineering from the Delft University of Technology, has developed several innovations for improved manufacturing processes and photolithographic systems that have been brought to market. Today, Loopstra is working on next-generation EUVL optical systems at ASML's supplier ZEISS in Germany. He is the author of 65 granted European patents and was awarded the Dutch Society for Precision Engineering (DSPE) Martin van den Brink Award in 2012. In his free time, the inventor takes breaks from high-powered lasers to spend time in his workshop where he makes furniture from his preferred medium: wood.
Vadim Banine is a native of Moscow, Russia, where he earned a degree in physics from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology in 1988. After spending two years as a postdoctoral researcher at the Laboratory of Heat and Mass Transfer of the Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e), where he also obtained his PhD, Banine joined ASML in 1996. He has since applied his scientific insights to technological breakthroughs in EUVL at the company and became ASML's Director of Research in 2010 and Director in Development & Engineering in 2017. He was appointed Professor of the Chair for Physics and Technology of EUV Lithography at his alma mater, TU/e, in 2013. He is named on 45 granted European patents and has authored more than 50 scientific publications. Despite his busy schedule, he still finds time to share his knowledge as a certified reviewer for SPIE and other journals.
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Patented microprocessor innovations are powering breakthroughs in telecommunications, nanotechnology, and medicine. Loopstra and Banine continue a line of previous winners and finalists at the European Inventor Award, including the legendary 4004 microchip from Federico Faggin (2006; Lifetime achievement - winner), DNA-analysing microchips from Stephen P. A. Fodor and team (2006; Non-EPO countries - winners), ultra-efficient RAM processors for mobile devices from Sophie Wilson (2013; Lifetime achievement - finalist) and paper-based microprocessors thanks to Elvira Fortunato and Rodrigo Martins (2016; Research - finalists).
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