ASML's High-NA EUV lithography machine is set to transform chip manufacturing

ASML’s High-NA EUV lithography machine is set to transform chip manufacturing

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Dutch firm ASML, one of Europe’s hottest stocks, is working on a new version of its extreme ultraviolet lithography machine, which is used to carve patterns on pieces of silicon that form the world’s most advanced chips.

Based in Veldhoven, a small village near the Dutch city of Eindhoven, ASML is the only company in the world capable of making these highly complex EUV machines, but it doesn’t stop there.

The company’s current EUV machine is used by TSMC, Samsung and Intel to produce chips that end up in the latest crop of computers and smartphones. But there is a new version of the EUV machine in the pipeline, dubbed the High NA, that could allow chip makers to build even more sophisticated chips to power the next generation of electronic devices. NA stands for numerical aperture.

ASML was born in 1984 when electronics giant Philips and chip machine maker Advanced Semiconductor Materials International decided to create a new company to develop lithography systems for the growing semiconductor industry. Called ASM Lithography, the company got off to a bad start in a warehouse next to a Philips office in Eindhoven.

Today ASML is worth $ 329 billion and some technology investors predict it will be worth $ 500 billion by the end of 2022. It is the largest technology company in Europe by market value and one of the largest in the world. It employs over 31,000 employees in the Netherlands, the United States, South Korea, Taiwan and mainland China.

How EUV machines work

EUV machines project exceptionally narrow beams of light onto silicon wafers that have been treated with photoresist chemicals. Intricate patterns are created on the wafer where the light comes into contact with the chemicals, which are carefully arranged in advance. This process, which leads to the formation of the very important transistors, is known as lithography.

Transistors are one of the basic building blocks of modern electronics and allow electric current to flow around a circuit. In general, the more transistors you can fit into a chip, the more powerful and efficient the chip will be.

Not all lithography systems manufactured by ASML have EUV capabilities. EUV is the company’s latest technology, which it introduced for high-volume manufacturing a few years ago. DUV (deep ultraviolet) is still the industry workhorse.

Chris Miller, an assistant professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, told CNBC that chip makers want to use the narrowest wavelength of light possible in lithography so they can fit more transistors on each piece. of silicon. The TSMC chips in Apple’s latest iPhones, which were created with ASML’s EUV machines, have around 10 billion transistors.

Development of the new machine

High NA is set to be even bigger, more expensive and more complicated than ASML’s current EUV machine.

“It includes a new optics design and requires significantly faster steps,” an ASML spokesperson told CNBC. They added that the High NA machine has a higher resolution which will allow 1.7 times smaller chip functionality and 2.9 times greater chip density.

“With this platform, customers will reduce the number of steps in the process,” the spokesperson continued. “This will be a strong motivation for them to adopt the technology. The platform will offer a significant reduction in defects, costs and cycle times.”

For context, each of the current EUV machines reportedly have over 100,000 components and employ 40 containers or four jumbo jets for shipping. They cost about $ 140 million each, according to reports.

“They aren’t resting on their laurels,” Miller said, adding that the company’s new machine will allow for even more specific engravings on silicon chips.

The first High NA machine is still in development and will be available for early access from 2023 so that chip makers can start experimenting with it and learning how to make it work.

Customers will then be able to use them for their own research and development in 2024 and 2025. They are likely to be used in high-volume manufacturing from 2025 onwards.

In July, Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger said the company plans to be the first recipient of ASML’s High NA machine.

“I bet he paid a lot for this right because he’s certainly not the only person who’d like to get their hands on this car first,” Miller said.

Maurits Tichelman, Intel’s vice president of sales and marketing, told CNBC, “The elevated NA EUV is the next big technological change on the EUV roadmap.”

He added: “We are positioned to receive the industry’s first manufacturing EUV High NA tool and are driving to enable its introduction in 2025,” said Tichelman. He refused to say how many machines Intel has ordered.

The new High NA EUV instrument shifts from a .33 aperture lens to a sharper .55 aperture to enable higher resolution patterning, Tichelman said.

A larger opening allows for a wider EUV radius inside the machine before it hits the wafer. The wider this radius, the more intense it can be when it hits the wafer, which increases the accuracy with which the lines are printed. This in turn allows for smaller geometries and much smaller pitches, increasing density.

Alan Priestley, a semiconductor analyst at Gartner, told CNBC that ASML’s new machine will allow chip makers to produce chips below three nanometers. The most advanced chips in the world are currently three nanometers and beyond.

The High NA machines will cost about $ 300 million, which is double the existing EUV machines, and will need complex new lens technology, Priestley added.

How chips are made

The chips are often composed of 100-150 layers on a single silicon wafer. Only the most complicated layers need to be made with EUV machines, while simpler layers can be made with DUV machines, which also produces ASML, and other tools.

EUV machines take years to build and ASML can only ship so many in any given year. It only sold 31 last year, according to its financials, and only made 100 in total.

“Compared to traditional EUV machines, a High NA machine provides a larger lens capable of printing smaller models, enabling efficient production of more powerful chips,” said Syed Alam, global semiconductor lead at Accenture.

“Chip makers looking to print smaller features on chips have had to rely on double or triple modeling techniques, which is time consuming,” he added. “With a High NA EUV press, they are able to print these features in a single layer, resulting in faster turnaround times and better process flexibility.”

Chip makers will need to find a balance between better performance and higher costs associated with more sophisticated machinery, Alam said.

“This is especially true with High NA EUV machines where larger targets mean higher acquisition and maintenance costs,” he said.

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify that a single thick wafer comprises 100-150 layers.

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