Suppose you need 250 watts of extreme ultraviolet light at a wavelength of 13.5 nanometres (by comparison, green visible light has a wavelength of around 550 nanometres, and soft X-rays are between 0.1 and 1 nanometre). Well, start with a 20 kilowatt CO₂ laser, a stream of microscopic molten tin droplets, a rarefied hydrogen atmosphere and, oh, about US$ 150 million. This is how the latest generation of 7 nanometre integrated circuits are made.
Back in the woodshop, if one wants to cut a 1/4 inch channel in a block of wood and the only tool available is a 1/2 inch chisel – one is out of luck!
Truly amazing that ASML can make a 7 nanometer trace on a chip with a 14 nanometer light beam. The inventiveness of the human race is nearly miraculous!
We had a series in the early days of the site on “How Photolithography Works”. Part 6, “Resolution Enhancement”, explains some of the dirty tricks that allow creating feature sizes smaller than the wavelength of light used to expose the wafer.
Hmmm. ?Did I get it right that WE paid for this”tool”.
Either way, we are the ‘tools’.
Are there any competitors on the horizon that can compete with ASML/Zeiss photolithography machines?
At the moment, no. ASML, with Zeiss optics, is currently the sole manufacturer of extreme ultra-violet lithography machinery and has 67% of the entire photolithography equipment business. Given the investment needed to develop these machines, it is unlikely a competitor will emerge, especially since many potential competitors are among ASML’s 4000 suppliers and it’s likely any competitor would have to license a pile of ASML’s 12,000 patents.
Even a competitor in China?
There have been some write-ups in various places that China’s rulers have (understandably) set an objective of building complete capabilities for chip manufacturing. General view seems to be that China is about 10 years behind the West.
However, we have to remember how quickly China rose from an also-ran to become the world’s #1 steel-maker, #1 ship-builder, #1 auto-manufacturer. And I would guess, based on what is happening in other academic disciplines, that a very large share (maybe the majority) of PhD students in Western universities in chip-relevant studies are now … Chinese. Add the Chinese penchant for buying companies when they can, and business leaders & politicians when they must, and the defensive value of those 12,000 patents may represent a diminishing asset.
Separately, I wonder about the impact of Europe’s failing “green” power push. Manufacturing almost any kind of precision equipment requires absolutely reliable steady power – which Europe’s windmills, solar panels, and dependence on Russian gas cannot guarantee over the longer term. How long until ASML decides it needs to manufacture in China, where it will be assured of that reliable power as well as a continuing supply of fresh PhDs? Stranger things have happened!
A related interesting fairly detailed piece about the structure of computer chip industry, and about China’s evolving role. This may be of interest:
China, Semiconductors, and the Push for Independence - Part 1 (substack.com)
"… Yet, the executive push from the CCP for an in-house integrated circuit (IC) manufacturing capability is not a new thing. It has been mentioned, even if nominally, in every 5 Year Plan (5YP) dating back to the ’70s. This time actually is different though. The 14th 5YP is the first to emphasise complete self-reliance and suggest building a near end-to-end chain locally. It is also the first time where China is in a strong enough position nationally to fund this foray and the first time where it is considered a matter of national security. …
"… It is within this new [computer chip] industry, where consolidated global monopolists control all supply, that China creates roughly $310 billion in demand. The world total for chips sold in 2020 was $440 billion. At the surface, this looks like China has 70% of the world’s demand, but roughly half of that is exported back out of China to the rest of the world after being packaged and assembled. This is why China is so intent on technological independence. They have a chronic mismatch in local supply/demand …
"… Because of the – literally atomic – size of many of the nodes [chips], the companies which handle them have developed irreproducible expertise in their domain. In many instances, a couple of atoms out of place render the entire product unusable. For instance, the mirrors required for ASML’s extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUV) machines are polished to a smoothness of less than one atom’s thickness. To put that in perspective, if the mirrors were the size of Germany, the tallest ‘mountain’ would be just 1 millimetre high. This is the industry China is trying to disrupt. …
The “why” of China’s move. It boils down to a combination of market demand and strategic priority. China does not want to depend on the rest of the world, and there is a massive amount of demand (present and future) for chips, especially as AI development grows.
China imports more chips than it does oil. …"
Don’t know much about chips. ?Can one “back door” a chip to allow clandestine access.