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A Breakthrough In Chip Making

In 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore said that the speed and power of computer chips would double every 18 months. Thirty-six years later, "Moore's Law" is still widely accepted, but chipmakers have been rapidly approaching the point where it has looked like the law may not hold up. Now government scientists have given it new life by building a machine that can fit more circuits onto a microchip--and as a result, radically increase the chip's computing power.

Current technology prints circuits onto a microchip in a process called lithography. Light is projected through a stencil with circuit designs cut out of it and lands on light-sensitive chemicals that then etch the circuit patterns into the silicon chip. This way, manufacturers can print circuits as small as 0.1 microns wide, or 1/1,000th the width of a human hair.

But scientists have found a way to perform lithography using extreme ultraviolet light, which has a much shorter wavelength than the light that's currently being used. With EUV, circuits can be shrunk as small as 0.03 microns. That means far more transistors can fit on a chip. Processors built with EUV technology are expected to reach speeds up to 10 GHz by 2005.

This is accomplished with a prototype machine called the Engineering Test Stand, built at Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, Calif. It's the result of a five-year, quarter-billion-dollar venture between leading semiconductor companies, including Intel, AMD, and Motorola, and three Department of Energy national laboratories.

Jim Folta, a group leader of the project, says government funding spurred research on EUV lithography in the late 1980s. But in 1996, Congress cut the funds. "That's when the private sector said, 'We need better lithography tools,'" and decided to work with the government scientists to produce the ETS, says Folta.

The private companies stand to benefit from the research, he says, because the Engineering Test Stand will be refined over the next year to produce a prototype commercial machine. Once completed, the partners will license the technology to chipmakers, which will be able to build new and faster processors.

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