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NIST and the Semiconductor Industry: A Four-Decade Partnership Focuses on the Future

Good morning and welcome to the National Institute of Standards and Technology. We are delighted to host this important conference. We also are proud to be counted among the excellent organizations that are sponsoring this international gathering: SEMATECH, the Semiconductor Research Corporation, the American Vacuum Society, and Semiconductor Equipment and Materials International, or SEMI. I would like to thank these organizations for their efforts and cooperation.

So, here we are 40 years and several trillions of dollars in sales after Jack Kilby developed the first integrated circuit--about a decade after the Bell Labs trio of Bardeen, Brattain, and Shockley invented the transistor. These events initiated an amazing and still unfolding saga in technology history.

But today, and for the next several days, you will be focusing not on the past, but on the next six generations of integrated-circuit technology. That's the time line laid out in the latest installment of the National Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors. Frankly, the developments that are contemplated over this horizon boggle the mind. The industry is nearing the point at which the dimensions of chip features will be measured in numbers of atoms. You don't have to be a hard-core technologist to appreciate the incredibly ambitious aspirations of this essential, $160 billion industry.

But for a metrologist, the new roadmap does not – as R&D Magazine recently reported – it "does not make for good bedtime reading." In fact, the writer called the roadmap a "bit of a nail biter," one with "a compelling sense of urgency."

Here at NIST, we recognize that urgency. In fact, you might even find a few scientists, engineers, and program managers with inflamed cuticles, given the number and scale of the measurement-related hurdles that lie ahead.

As you may know, NIST is, among other things, the nation's measurement laboratory. In that role – as a partner to industry in the development of essential measurements and standards – NIST has been providing technical support to semiconductor manufacturers and their suppliers since 1955. Back then, Judson French – whom you may know as the director of our Electronics and Electrical Engineering Laboratory – worked with the Electronic Industries Association and ASTM. Together, they identified key measurement needs of the growing transistor industry. One of the first jobs we tackled was developing accurate, non-destructive methods for measuring resistivity in silicon. This work led to five industry standards and the first set of NIST standard reference materials that served the semiconductor industry.

Reference materials – which are equivalent to rulers and used to compare measurements – remain vitally important to the industry. The new roadmap points out that they are especially valuable "when a measurement is first applied to a technology generation" and, in particular, "during early materials and process tool development." For NIST, the message here is that we must always strive to stay ahead of the game.

Today, work on the semiconductor industry's technology needs spans all seven of the NIST Measurement and Standards Laboratories. You'll have a chance to learn about a large portion of this work during the next few days. According to my tally, 39 of the poster papers report on work involving NIST as the lead performer or as a contributor.

Most of this and other work responds directly to the metrology-related challenges spelled out in the roadmap. We love the roadmap, and NIST staff members have eagerly participated in its development. It provides the laboratories with clear goals, albeit daunting ones. It allows us to set priorities with industry guidance.

In fact, our National Semiconductor Metrology Program was set up to galvanize NIST-wide resources and expertise in response to the semiconductor industry's highest-priority needs. Industry representatives were instrumental in convincing Congress of the importance of this program and in communicating the infrastructural role that NIST plays in the industry. That message is more effective when the messengers are your customers.

The program is managed by Bob Scace. Bob is one of the NIST folks with very short fingernails. In all, he is overseeing 29 projects. Topics range from solderability measurements to thin-film reference materials to wafer flatness and thickness. We know the list of projects should be longer. The industry has assembled a lengthy list of measurement needs. These include a number of potential showstoppers – very formidable obstacles that could disrupt the long run of success that has shrunk the transistor to less than one-ten-thousandth of its original size.

Industry groups recommended funding the National Semiconductor Metrology Program at $25 million annually. This year's budget is $11 million. Next year, we're shooting for a $2 million increase, which would put us more than halfway toward our funding goal.

The three-year-old program already is delivering tangible, usable benefits, such as improved methods for measuring dopants, standard solderability tests, and an x-ray microcalorimeter for on-line materials analysis. Promising developments are in the pipeline.

An example is a new linewidth reference material that has the potential to leapfrog several generations of metrology needs. It was developed by researchers in NIST's Semiconductor Electronics Division--the focal point of our semiconductor work--our Manufacturing Engineering Laboratory, and partners from Sandia National Laboratories, and SEMATECH. Dave Seiler, a co-chair of this conference, is the chief of the Semiconductor Electronics Division.

This reference material, shown schematically here, (Overhead #1) is being proposed as a tool for calibrating equipment that measures integrated circuit features with widths as narrow as 100 nanometers. The artifact is made entirely of single-crystal silicon film. It has atomically smooth sidewalls that form along crystallographic planes. This means that it is ideal for comparative measurements of critical dimensions.

The reference material could prove to be a very versatile measurement aid. Potentially, it could be used to calibrate any known linewidth metrology tools. That's the first anticipated application, but reference materials for overlay and step height measurements also are under active development.

Last summer, a consortium of 18 semiconductor manufacturers and makers of metrology instruments evaluated an early version of the reference material. Results were reported at SEMICON West, and company feedback is guiding design and fabrication enhancements. A new and improved version of the artifact will soon be distributed for measurements by a second consortium of companies that is being formed for this purpose.

Our researchers believe they are on track toward a NIST-traceable reference material, linked directly to the international length standard. Traceability is the reason behind a hole etched through the reverse side of the artifact. It appears that by means of a high-resolution transmission electron microscope, we will be able measure critical dimensions in terms of the known spacings between atoms in a silicon lattice.

Here are a couple of overheads showing this material. The first image shows the material as viewed from the reverse side. The second shows the illuminated section of the artifact as viewed from above.

Stay tuned for more developments and check out the poster presentation on this project. But even with this brief description – no, let's call it a thumbnail description, given my earlier reference to the nail-biting anxiety caused by the metrology challenges laid out in the roadmap – you can see that we are making progress toward the goal making atom-by-atom measurements.

Advanced Technology Program

Now, I'd like to shift attention to NIST's Advanced Technology Program – or the ATP. Over the program's eight years of operation, strong, constructive links have developed between the ATP and the semiconductor industry.

I'll start with an anecdote to convey the ATP's mission and how it encourages companies and teams of companies and other organizations look further out onto the technology horizon.

Back in 1992, the ATP – then a pilot program – received a proposal from a tiny New England firm called the Diamond Semiconductor Group.

When I say "tiny" I mean this was literally two guys working in a barn. They had a proposal for a new approach to doing ion implantation in semiconductor wafers. If it worked, it would greatly simplify – and improve – the process for the big 300-mm wafers that were on the horizon. The only catch was that it would require a design breakthrough that was widely believed to be very difficult – maybe impossible – and those were tight times for semiconductor R&D. Money for such a long-shot project just wasn't around.

So after exhausting all their other options for funding, the partners sent in an application to the ATP – which one of them hadn't even heard of. Their project was one of only 21 selected that year.

Of course the upshot is they were right. The new idea worked, and DSG developed the technology for a machine that was at once cheaper and simpler than existing machines and that could handle wafers two-and-a-half times larger than the standard 200mm production wafers. On the strength of the ATP award they attracted Varian Associates as a strategic partner, and their technology is now implemented in a Varian serial high-current implanter. DSG has grown from two to more than fifty full- and part-time employees.

They became one of our first success stories.

Given that its basic mission revolves around broadly enabling technologies that offer large potential benefits for the nation's economy, it's not strange to find strong ties between the Advanced Technology Program and the semiconductor industry – which has similar enabling qualities. If you're in the semiconductor or electronics business, you should give the ATP a close look.

The ATP provides cost-shared funding for high-risk R&D projects – projects proposed by industry and selected on a competitive basis. Projects which – like the DSG proposal – are promising but too high-risk for venture capital or other sources of funding. Projects that – if they succeed – could be very good for U.S. industry, the economy, and the public.

Over the past few years the ATP has committed a substantial portion of its resources to projects of direct interest to semiconductor manufacturers. Because ATP projects are so often multi disciplinary in both their approach and their impact, you can sort things different ways, but we have committed at least $92 million in funding for more than 30 projects that will impact the semiconductor industry, matched by more than $102 million in industry cost-sharing.

What have we got for the investment? Well, the DSG technology for one. And, among others:

  • Improved technologies for growing and processing silicon carbide wafers for special high- power devices and blue LEDs, [Cree Research]
  • New zinc-based semiconductor technologies that have made possible a whole family of light-emitting and high-temperature devices, [Eagle-Picher]
  • Improved light sources for photolithography, and [Light Age, Inc. et al.]
  • An advanced chemical vapor deposition reactor incorporating feedback-control sensors for use in producing low-cost, high-quality diode lasers. [Spire]

What's still in the works? A couple of examples include

  • Improved technology for making low-cost thin-film amorphous silicon panels on a large scale for new display and X-ray imaging systems, and [GE/EG&G]
  • A suite of closed-loop control systems and reactor control algorithms for epitaxial silicon fabrication that should significantly increase yields and lower costs of semiconductor devices. [On-Line Technologies]

The ATP is getting results –

  • A recently released survey of 210 ATP projects demonstrates that ATP is accelerating technological innovation. Companies have identified more than 1000 potential applications of the technologies – and started commercialization plans for nearly 80 percent of these.
  • These are ground-breaking technologies, not just tweaking. Twenty-nine percent of those applications result in performance improvements of 100-500%.
  • And they're happening faster because of the ATP – more than 60 percent of the planned applications are expected to get to market two years or more ahead of where they'd be without the ATP.

And the ATP can deliver results for the semiconductor and electronics industries. The projects I just mentioned vied with hundreds of other proposals--from almost any branch of technology you can think of – in ATP general competitions. But in the last few years we also have sponsored focused-program competitions in key technology areas that have been developed in consultation with industry. Focused programs –

  • are developed in response to specific suggestions received from industry and academia. They establish a specific set of research and business goals that often require the parallel development of a suite of interlocking R&D projects, projects that complement and reinforce each other
  • allow us to provide critical-mass support for high-risk, enabling technologies in particular technology areas that industry identifies as offering especially important opportunities for economic growth.
  • This year we have launched three new focused programs of particular interest to the semiconductor and electronics industries:
  • Microelectronics Manufacturing Infrastructure,
  • Photonics Manufacturing, and
  • Premium Power.

Microelectronics Manufacturing Infrastructure – I don't need to tell this audience about the importance of electronics manufacturing to the U.S. economy. It's one of the most intensely competitive, rapidly moving industries in the world. And staying competitive means maintaining strong R&D effort.

This new ATP program addresses key infrastructure issues for the industry, including:

  • fundamental physical limitations of existing semiconductor patterning and interconnecting materials and technologies;
  • requirements for "green" manufacturing;
  • gaps in projected performance levels of chips, packages, and the off-chip interconnection substrate;
  • and ever shorter product design cycles.

The ATP program in microelectronics manufacturing offers a unique mechanism for filling the gaps in corporate R&D by engaging the many small and medium-sized companies in the electronics industry. Ultimately, we expect the program to stimulate a network of industry alliances – and we will promote vertical and horizontal partnerships among the various sectors of this diverse industry – that will be self-sustaining and capable of performing the R&D needed to support future generations of electronic materials, processes, and manufacturing.

The goal is to avert future gaps between semiconductor device performance and the ability of the packaging and assembly industries to exploit that performance and meet the needs of manufacturers. We expect the focused program will catalyze synergism and collaboration within the industry to create an integrated infrastructure for manufacturing electronic components that are superior in performance, cost, time-to-market, reliability, size, and weight. It should enhance the value and utility of portable electronic products and thereby

  • expand the market,
  • spur the development of new electronic products,
  • increase the U.S. share of the world electronics market, and
  • reduce the costs of R&D.

Photonics Manufacturing – a growth industry, with revenues derived from photonics components doubling every four years.

But today almost 75 percent of these components are made in Japan. The United States has a strong research base in photonics and produces high-performance components and equipment, primarily for military applications, but for civilian markets our manufacturing costs must be reduced substantially.

The ATP investment complements long-standing federal investments in photonics for military applications, which have produced excellent technical capabilities but left many unmet needs in manufacturing. There are plenty of technical challenges:

  • In packaging, new concepts for reducing optical-element alignment tolerances, must be transformed to practical manufacturing processes.
  • Interconnection of components requires new approaches to alignment, materials design, and assembly.
  • Advances in manufacturing equipment are essential – computer-aided design tools and automated assembly technologies.
  • Research to reduce the toxicity of the materials used in the fabrication of the compound semiconductors used in photonics and the development of non-toxic source materials, and improved processes for growing of these compounds would reduce capital costs and increase safety.

We look to this program to catalyze consortia of photonics manufacturers, suppliers, universities, and government laboratories to address high-risk manufacturing technologies that will produce broad benefits for the U.S. photonics industry.

Finally, the new focused program on premium power responds to the growing demand for small, localized, high-quality, tailored power sources. This demand is driven in large part by the global revolution in telecommunications and information technologies.


While you are here, I encourage you to learn more about NIST – about the Measurement and Standards Laboratories, about the Advanced Technology Program, and about two other major programs that I can only mention.

One is the Manufacturing Extension Partnership. The MEP is a nationwide network of extension centers that provide technology and business services to smaller manufacturers aiming to improve their performance and modernize their operations. Within the last couple of years, the MEP has grown from a highly successful pilot program to a full network. As of this year, the Partnership encompasses more than 400 centers and field offices. As a result, manufacturers in all 50 states and Puerto Rico now have access to extension services.

NIST also manages the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award – perhaps the premier example of an effective public/private partnership.

It's become nearly reflexive to say that partnerships are the future of R&D in semiconductors – just as in many other areas of technology. But it's an absolute fact. I hope you gain much from this conference and that you find ways to expand and strengthen your partnerships with NIST and each other.

Created October 16, 2009, Updated October 25, 2016