A new machine to power the future of semiconductor innovation

News Excerpt:
Netherland-based Advanced Semiconductor Materials Lithography (ASML) has unveiled its new ‘High NA EUV’ machine to manufacture the most advanced semiconductor chips.


  • Microchips are called by different names like integrated circuits, semiconductor chips, computer chips or, simply, chips. 
  • These tiny pieces of silicon are the foundation of the digital world and are used in smartphones, cars, medical equipment, and many other now-common devices.
    • The tinier they get, the more advanced technology we get in the everyday world with tremendous impact.

Science of Semiconductor Chip Manufacturing- Lithography:

  • We have powerful computers almost everywhere around us thanks to a technology called semiconductor lithography.
    • Lithography is the process of using light to print tiny patterns on silicon.
    • It is a fundamental step in mass-producing microchips.
    • Some machines automate this process.

Principles of lithography:

  • A lithography system is essentially a projection system
  • Light is projected through a blueprint of the pattern that will be printed (known as a ‘mask’ or ‘reticle’). 
  • With the pattern encoded in the light, the system’s optics shrink and focus the pattern onto a photosensitive silicon wafer. 

EUV lithography:

  • EUV stands for extreme ultraviolet, an incredibly short wavelength of light that ASML generates in large quantities to print small, complex designs on microchips.
  • EUV lithography does big things on a tiny scale. 
  • ASML is the only maker of extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography machines, needed to manufacture the most advanced chips.
    • High NA EUV is the next generation of that technology.

High NA EUV: 

  • In the late 2010s, the ASML became the first and only company to market a lithography tool using EUV, or 13.5 nanometre wavelength light.
  • Existing EUV machines, though they have supported the last decade of semiconductor process development, can’t hit the resolution needed for sub-2 Nano-Metre nodes to be patterned into chips in a way that would be conducive to mass production. 
  • In February, ASML unveiled its new ‘High NA EUV’ machine. 
    • It costs $350 million (Rs 2,900 crore) apiece and is as big as a double-decker bus. 
    • This machine uses extreme ultraviolet (EUV) photolithography, a next-generation technology, to make semiconductors. The mould of the circuits of a transistor are transferred to a silicon wafer coated with a light-sensitive material called a photoresist.
    • Both the original and High NA machines, create EUV light by vaporizing droplets of tin with twin laser pulses 50,000 times a second.
  • This new method is functionally the same physical process as EUV lithography, but the optics are larger and support higher-resolution patterns to be printed on the wafer. 
  • The High NA tool will let chipmakers shrink the size of the smallest features on their chips by up to 40%, allowing the density of transistors to nearly triple.
  • The High NA machine's biggest change is a larger optical system consisting of irregularly shaped mirrors, made by Carl Zeiss, polished so smooth they must be kept in a vacuum. 
    • They collect and focus more light than their predecessors - High NA stands for high numerical aperture - which leads to better resolution.

What is the machine’s value?

  • Our future is being constantly reshaped by artificial intelligence, robots, intelligent automobiles, high-quality digital communication, powerful gadgets, and space exploration. 
    • These innovations are transforming the way we live and work and also opening new possibilities that were once in the realm of science fiction. 
    • The fundamental enablers of these revolutions are semiconductor chips, which carry out the enormous number of calculations required to materialise these technologies.
  • By continuously making these chips smaller, faster, and more efficient, we have gone from just four transistors in the first integrated circuit in 1948 to more than 19 billion in the chip we use in our smartphones
    • This innovation is driven by Moore’s law, which describes the expectation that the number of transistors on a microchip will double approximately every two years.
  • Lithography machines also have strategic ramifications. 
    • For example, ASML is not allowed to sell its lithography machines to China along with other components, to prevent researchers in China from potentially reverse-engineering them. 
    • So these machines underscore the fact that major technological breakthroughs can provide highly skilled jobs as well as strengthen a country’s standing in the geopolitical arena.

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