Applied Materials launches a breakthrough tool to reduce chip power consumption

Applied Materials has announced a new tool for reducing the power chips consume, enabling a new generation of powerful new gadgets with longer battery life.

The innovation is built into the chip equipment manufacturer’s newest tool, the Applied Producer Onyx film treatment system, announced today. Semiconductor chips serve as the brains of electronic gadgets from laptops to iPhones. And each chip has miles of microscopic electrical wiring built into it these days. The new Onyx effectively wraps those wires in a layer of insulation that can be accurately built at tiny dimensions.

“This is a big breakthrough,” said Bill McClintock, vice president and general manager of Applied’s Dielectric Systems and Modules business unit, in an interview.

He said that interconnect accounts for a third of the power used in a chip, and improving its power consumption results in higher performance and longer battery life. With Onyx, Applied Materials will enable the most power-efficient and strong interconnects in the industry.

Santa Clara, Calif.-based Applied Materials is the world’s biggest chip maker. The new Onyx fits in line with its other chip-making chambers, which process wafers and move them to the next machine. Eventually, those wafers are sliced into individual chips and used in electronic devices.

Chip makers who buy the new system would introduce it in a chip factory (which can be built these days for $4 billion) as one of many machines in a manufacturing line. The Onyx would handle eight to 16 processes, which would be followed by as many as 150 other processes before the chip is finished.

Currently, the low-k films that serve as the insulation for wiring on each chip are often inaccurately or indiscriminately laid upon the interconnects. The Onyx can optimize the molecular structure of the films so that they more precisely cover the wiring. As a result, the interconnects will be able to withstand 3D packaging techniques that typically cause damage to wiring in subsequent processing steps.

“Doing this with ten layers of metal wiring and dealing with the downstream effects isn’t easy,” McClintock said.

Onyx systems cost millions of dollars. Only the top chip makers will likely buy them, but each of those chip makers is likely to need millions of systems. So McClintock believes the new tool will be part of a $100 million market by 2014.

The new tool can help chips reach the 22-nanometer level and beyond, partly because it strengthens a chip and enables a higher yield, or ratio of working chips to total chips in a given batch. A nanometer is a billionth of a meter. A damaged part of a wire might be only 200 angstroms. But at 22 nanometers, a section of a wire might only be 700 angstroms long, so the damaged portion is magnified.

The new tool can be used to make just about any logic chip, or most of the processing chips made, not counting memory or analog devices. As chips move to each new generation, they get smaller and smaller and the width between wires also gets smaller, increasing the chances of failures from crosstalk or parasitic capacitance. That wastes power and slows speed. The new tool can reduce those chances of failure.

Onyx drives a combination of carbon and silicon into the porous dielectric film to reinforce insulation at the atomic level (pictured left). Relatively few changes in interconnect have happened in recent years. One big switch was a move from aluminum wires to copper a decade ago. The Onyx took about a year to develop. Potential rivals include Novellus and ASMi.