Many modern consumer products — calculators, digital watches, and microwave ovens — as well as advanced computers depend on microelectronics for their operation. The key to microelectronic devices is the integrated circuit, which consists of multiple layers of precisely patterned thin films, each chemically altered to achieve specific electrical characteristics. Manufacture of these devices, currently by a complex series of labor-intensive chemical and physical processes, will undergo considerable change during the next 10 years, partly to meet the challenge of international competition. Take a glimpse at a microelectronics factory in the year 2002:

The new facility is totally integrated, a mere one tenth the size of the old-style facility, and constructed at only one fifth of the cost. It produces chips with line widths of 0.15 micron or smaller at a success rate of nearly 90 percent, dramatic changes since 1992, when line widths were 0.5 micron and only 50 percent of the chips survived the manufacturing process.

The unique facility is highlighted by a modular array of equipment clusters surrounding a central processing host, a design that permits major reductions in manpower and space requirements, with correspondingly lower costs. There is greater flexibility for making a wide range of products in a single production cycle, and the ultrahigh-vacuum conditions minimize the generation and release of chemical waste. The facility has resulted from intensive research by chemists and chemical engineers in devising new materials, studying their chemistry and rates of reactions, and designing new equipment and processes.

The microelectronics factory of the future. The ultrahighvacuum process is modularized to yield many advantages, as explained in the text.

This factory also uses a new operating strategy, replacing the old trial-and-error approach to equipment design and operation with process models that are based on extensive research into chemical reaction mechanisms and transport phenomena. Real-time feedback from artificial intelligence sensors provides reliable control of each processing step, and links to the factory's powerful main computer enable the downloading and modification of recipes for each wafer. The process chambers of these single-wafer systems employ short reaction times, allowing sequential processing in the same reactor and circumventing the higher capital costs of old-style multiple-reactor systems.

The intervening years of research have greatly changed the role of chemists and chemical engineers since the 1990s. The production of a new chip no longer requires years of laboratory development, and an extensive library of computer data allows a unique microelectronic device to be designed quickly. After first locating the half-dozen most promising materials, the computer carries out molecular-level simulations, producing holographic displays of the top candidates that the process engineer can “see” and “touch.” The computer then evaluates the designs for manufacturing applicability, checking such details as reactor design and likelihood of crystal defects. Finally, the computer prints out two or more alternative designs, along with their associated costs. Human judgment returns at this point, as the process engineer selects the preferred design and tells the computer to make the new chip.

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