What is an Extreme Ultraviolet Lithography Machine?

An extreme ultraviolet lithography machine or EUV is a technological wonder. This lithography system uses ultraviolet light to create billions or even trillions of microscopic structures on ultra-thin slices of silicon. These highly complex structures are the building blocks of integrated circuits or chips found in computers, smartphones, cameras, cars, and countless other devices. Generally, having more structures inside a chip will give you a faster and more powerful product. Engineers come up with ways to make these structures smaller and smaller each time.

The key element to achieve this process is to harness light with a much shorter wavelength. Shorter wavelengths will enable manufacturers to create smaller, faster, and more powerful chips.

extreme ultraviolet lithography machine

An EUV machine has more than 100,000 parts and costs more than $120 million. Roughly the size of a school bus, shipping the machine requires 40 freight containers. There are a little over a hundred of these machines in the world and only one company can make them – a Dutch company called ASML. Their latest EUV technology has made a significant leap from using 193 nanometer light to 13.5 nanometer light. 

EUV lithography developed in the 1980s but mass production only started in 2018. Other companies like Canon and Nikon make non-EUV lithography machines that can only produce older generations of less cost-effective chips. EUV machines are extremely difficult to manufacture. Even with decades of experience and billions of dollars in R&D, the company is still facing a significant backlog.

How It Works?

Think of a lithography system as the most advanced printer in the world, with microchips as the end product. Light is projected onto a blueprint of the structure pattern to be printed. Using special lenses, the pattern is focused onto a silicon wafer coated with a light-sensitive chemical. The unexposed parts are removed and the structure is revealed. 

Unfortunately, EUV light presents major challenges. It is difficult to generate. The complicated process involves firing a high-energy laser on a microscopic droplet of molten tin. This light turns into plasma that emits EUV, which is then focused on a beam. 

Another problem is EUV gets absorbed by everything, even air. To solve this, an EUV system uses a large vacuum chamber allowing the projected light to reach the wafer’s surface. A system of highly-reflective mirrors, designed by Carl Zeiss, guides the light to its destination. 

Why Do We Need EUV?

Manufacturing chips using 193-nanometer lithography can only go so far. Pushing the process further comes at a price. Sooner or later, engineers will reach the end of the line. Think of it like a television screen’s resolution. Let’s say the 193 nanometer light is 1080p and 13.5 nanometer light is 4K. Having a 4K resolution gives you sharper images so you can make out the tiny details or structures in the case of microchips. With EUV lithography, chipmakers will have the capacity to create smaller, faster, powerful, and hopefully more affordable chips. 

The Future of EUV

ASML has shipped 35 EUV lithography systems in 2020 and is projected to ship 45-50 systems in 2021. The company controls 90% of the semiconductor market with top customers like Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing, Intel, and Samsung. With technologies such as cloud computing, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and the Internet of things expanding, the EUV will be the backbone of our future. These technological marvels offer important opportunities for progress. Advancements in microchip technology can lead to breakthroughs in science and engineering for decades.  

Unfortunately, EUV machines also pose a serious risk. In the wrong hands, it can be dangerous and destabilizing. The technology can be used to create autonomous weapons systems (Skynet, anyone?), supersonic missiles, surveillance tools, cyberweapons, nuclear weapons, and even bioweapons. A system must be put in place to prevent such catastrophe.

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