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Although most of the semiconductor industry is still learning to build chips with circuits as narrow as 90 nanometers, Hewlett-Packard researcher Stan Williams is using a novel process called nano-imprint lithography (NIL) to make experimental memory chips with tiny electrical pathways less than half that size. "We're now using imprint lithography to routinely make real, operating circuits with a half-pitch [width] of 30 nanometers," says Williams, a senior fellow and director of quantum science research at HP Labs.
Conventional optical lithography tools can't produce features nearly small enough for Williams' chips, which require dozens of tiny parallel wires to be laid out on both sides of a thin layer of electrically switchable material. Instead, HP relies on what's basically a high-tech stamping process. A mold etched with microscopic patterns is pressed into a layer of soft polymer resist material, which is then hardened with ultraviolet light. When the mold is removed, an exact copy of the mold pattern, in reverse, is left behind. Conventional etching and deposition are then used to selectively remove and replace some of the polymer features with a fine grid of metal lines and connections.
Although HP's prototype chips are years away from finding their way into commercial products, Williams is convinced that imprint technology has the potential to revolutionize the semiconductor industry as well as a host of other fields, from data storage to optical networking to life sciences. "We think this is an incredibly promising technology. It's the most viable technique for being able to manufacture in the nanoscale realm," he says. "There's no other existing technique we could use to make our circuits."
Universities and research labs such as HP's are using imprint lithography to build a plethora of molecular-scale products. And as their experimental results are reported in papers and presentations, imprint lithography is emerging as one of the technology industry's most promising new manufacturing methods. Not only can it produce extremely small features but NIL also offers the potential to greatly simplify many production processes, and at a far lower cost--perhaps as little as one tenth the cost of optical lithography. But first, production-ready tools and manufacturing infrastructure must be developed and potential customers must be convinced that imprints offer both technical and economic advantages over competing technologies.
HP is not alone in its enthusiasm for imprint technology. Five other companies--EV Group, Molecular Imprints, Nanonex, Obducat and Suss MicroTec--are selling NIL manufacturing tools, and numerous others are working on other aspects of the technology, including molds, polymer materials and inspection tools. Although the imprint tool industry is still so new that no third-party data exists yet to estimate the total market size, Molecular Imprints and Nanonex each claim to have sold about a dozen machines, with prices ranging from $100,000 to well over $1 million.