The EU-funded SENATE project, part of a chain of thematically connected initiatives to advance processor fabrication solutions under the ECSEL Joint Undertaking, supported the production of the first commercial 7nm-node chips using extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography tools. The processors already feature in several smartphones which were launched on the market last year.
‘A very important milestone for the EUV programme last year were the multiple announcements of consumer products which referenced EUV lithography technology applications,’ says project coordinator Frans List at Netherlands-headquartered ASML, the world’s largest supplier of photolithography systems for the electronics industry.
‘This shows that our tool development and ability to make use of a pilot-line facility have been instrumental in enabling the project partners to develop, test, demonstrate and disseminate their products and process flows. All the activities in the SENATE project were in support of European suppliers to enable the chip industry to migrate to the 7nm node.’
The 7nm, or 7 nanometer technology node is the latest-generation of commercial chips after 10nm, with smaller feature size and smaller transistors translating into faster and more energy-efficient processors. That, in turn, means more feature-rich and less power-hungry smartphones and other electronic devices.
The technology developed in SENATE enables these chips to be built with the world’s first commercial EUV lithography system. It uses extremely short wavelengths of ultraviolet light to transfer a pattern from an opaque template, known as a photomask, on to a light-sensitive material on the semiconductor substrate, which then guides the deposition process to print the integrated circuit. The shorter 13.5nm wavelength of EUV light is better able to print the nanometre-scale features in advanced chip designs.
‘To achieve 7nm-node capability, many innovations have been required in the areas of lithography, metrology, materials for masks and chips, and process integration,’ List says.
Drawing on the expertise of 40 partner companies and research institutes worldwide, the project team overcame numerous challenges spanning systems integration, innovative deposition processes, EUV mask infrastructure, and reflective optical element development as well as the qualification of metrology tools and modules for the 7nm node. The work resulted in more than 50 project publications and 33 patents.
Keeping Moore’s Law alive
‘By enabling collaboration between equipment suppliers in lithography, metrology and processing equipment and research and technology organisations, the project contributed to meeting the specifications for 7nm-node technology, leading to the adoption of 7nm EUV within the electronics industry,’ the project coordinator explains.
That, in turn, is helping to keep Moore’s Law alive.
SENATE is one of a successful ongoing chain of ‘More Moore’ thematic projects running with EU support since the late 1990s, leveraging public-private partnerships to help drive the migration to successive chip-technology nodes.
Work conducted in these projects is continuing to make a significant contribution to the expansion of the European semiconductor manufacturing tools industry and related sectors, fuelling innovation and patent registrations as well as companies and jobs growth.
‘Moore’s Law is about the ever-increasing demand for more computational power at ever-greater efficiency and lower cost. In technology, when a certain node is reached, there will already be research and development activity to look at what comes next. R&D is a continuing activity in pushing the boundaries of technology to the next level,’ List concludes.
In that regard, the project partners are already looking towards developing next-generation solutions needed for future chip production requirements beyond the 7nm-technology node.
ECSEL, the Electronic Components and Systems for European Leadership Joint Undertaking is an EU-driven, public-private partnership, funding innovation in electronic components and systems.