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UT engineers make major breakthrough in chip technology

     Engineers and chemists at The University of Texas at Austin made computer chip history in February by successfully printing structures small enough to carry the computer industry forward for another decade.

     Reducing the size of these structures allows the chips to run faster and store more information. These structures or images ultimately become the wires that carry electricity on the computer chip. The UT team has reduced the size of the electronic pathways from .25 microns to .08 microns. One micron is the equivalent of approximately 1/25,000 of an inch. Six hundred of these structures would fit across the diameter of a human hair. They are only approximately 350 atoms wide.

     The research team was led by Dr. Grant Willson, professor of chemistry and chemical engineering, who previously spent 15 years leading IBM's research in this area. They developed a new chemistry, which coupled with a different wavelength of light not currently used by standard methods, allowed the miniaturization breakthrough.

     Many in the industry were resigned to giving up the current printing technique known as photolithography, a process resembling photographic film exposure and developing that is used to print structures. Abandoning photolithography would require a total retooling of the semiconductor industry, but it appeared the process had reached its limits. Even Willson, who is credited with major contributions to the last industry breakthrough in photolithography, was skeptical.

     “I didn't believe it could be done at first,” said Willson, “It really works better than my wildest imaginings.”

     Kyle Patterson, a UT graduate student on the team, will present the findings Feb. 24 in Santa Clara, Calif. at the Society of Photo-Optical Instrumentation Engineers (SPIE) meeting. The discoveries that he will describe resulted from collaboration with three Austin area companies. SEMATECH, a non-profit research consortium of 11 semiconductor manufacturers, funded the research and installed the special equipment required to produce the images. ISI built the equipment and DuPont Photomasks Inc. in Round Rock made major contributions to the imaging technology.

     "This is a remarkable achievement for the University of Texas research team and DuPont Photomasks is pleased to have assisted in their work," said Gil Shelden, DuPont Photomasks' director of engineering.