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Applied Materials, the largest maker of chip making equipment, announced what it called a “breakthrough” technology in manufacturing chips that could become critical for continued technological progress in electronics for years to come.
The advance comes in a category of chip-making equipment called “rapid thermal processing,” or RTP. That involves heating a chip material to levels of heat similar to that of jet engine within a very short period of time. While it seems arcane, it could enable chip designers to continue creating chips that are faster, better, and smaller. And those chips are the building blocks of all future electronic devices, from smartphones to gaming consoles. To break that down further, without advances like this, you won’t have supercomputing power to deliver advanced 3D apps on your smartphone in the future.
“This represents multiple divisions in the company coming together to create a revolutionary technology,” said Sundar Ramamurthy (pictured at top), vice president and general manager in a division at Applied Materials. “This is about innovation at the transistor level.”
Applied has been making RTP machines for 15 years and nearly every chip manufacturer has one of its machines. But the new Applied Vantage Vulcan RTP system leapfrogs current equipment and brings a new level of precision and control to the process of annealing chip materials at high temperatures. This is important because tiny little defects are becoming a bigger and bigger problem as chip manufacturing enables the miniaturization of chip circuitry on a microscopic scale.
The variation in manufacturing, caused by a breakdown in the ability to create exactly uniform chips, makes it much harder for chip makers to create cheap semiconductors. One of the root causes is a lack of uniformity in heating within RTP machines. The result is that there are too many chips that are appropriate only for desktop computing functions, rather than low-power laptop or smartphone devices.
Applied’s solution is to heat the backside of a chip wafer (pictured at right; a wafer is a circular disk that is processed and then sliced into chips). That allows the variations in heating uniformity to go away, said Ramamurthy. The backside of the wafer absorbs the heat and then spreads it uniformly through the wafer.
The technology will be useful with circuitry at 28 nanometers or smaller. That means that the width between circuits is 20 nanometers, where a nanometer is a billionth of a meter. With this technology, Applied can heat a wafer at more than 200 degrees Celsius per second, up to 1,300 degrees Celsius.