Nanolithography has opened this page for you. The development of modern electronics would not have been possible without nanotechnology and its associated processes – including nanolithography, which enables the creation of incredibly small patterns on items such as computer chips. Those tiny structures have enabled giant advances, most notably in the semiconductor industry, but also in many other fields.

Applications for nanolithography

Alongside the all-important role in the semiconductor industry, applications for nanolithography also go beyond microelectronics. They include optical uses – in display panels, photonic crystals and micro-lenses – and elements used for magnetic storage, such as memory elements and read/write heads. Functional surfaces such as those used in probe tips and nano-tweezers and the superconducting devices needed for quantum computing and high-frequency electronics also use nanolithography techniques, as do some energy storage and conversion devices, such as solar cells and batteries.

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Areas of specialisation

Amsterdam Science Park is home to the cutting-edge Advanced Research Center for Nanolithography (ARCNL), a public-private partnership bringing together expertise from the AMOLF Research Institute, the University of Amsterdam (UvA) and the Vrije Universiteit (VU) with semi-conductor manufacturing giant ASML. ARCNL aims to nurture a new generation of entrepreneurial researchers and employs an international team of some 60 young scientists, who are trained to do high-level fundamental research while working closely with industry.

There is a wide range of areas within the field of nanolithography currently being explored at the park:

  • The EUV generation and imaging group is researching physical processes in laser-produced plasmas and how to control the emission of radiation and particles. It’s also exploring the use of EUV (extreme ultraviolet) light for a new generation of ultra-high-resolution microscopes.
  • The ARCNL’s Emilia Olsson has been awarded a €250,000 grant by the Women In Science Excel (WISE) programme to continue her work on the atomic-scale modelling of solid-state materials. The research aims to develop novel materials for EUV lithography.
  • Research by the Plasma Processes group is aimed at understanding the plasma sources of EUV light at the atomic level.
  • The Nanoscale Imaging and Metrology group is researching advanced imaging and sensing and aims to develop better metrology tools for the nanolithography of the future.
  • Computer chip manufacturers currently use expensive techniques to measure chip quality. The Computational Imaging group is investigating the possibility of improving optical metrology with relatively simple optics aided by computational imaging.

ARCNL: making better, faster, greener computer chips

Advances in computing and electronics technology require advances in computer chips. Nanolithography is the process of printing nanoscale patterns on silicon wafers to make those chips. And the shorter the light waves used to make those patterns, the smaller the features can be made – meaning chips become smaller, faster and greener.

ARCNL’s Plasma Theory and Modeling group is working to better understand the process by which EUV light waves are generated in order to optimise the process. Group leader John Sheil explains: “You fire high-intensity laser pulses at tiny, liquid droplets of tin. And you convert the liquid into a really hot, dense ionised gas, so-called plasma, and you get a really unique radiation: extreme ultraviolet radiation. And industry uses that radiation to print patterns on silicon wafers.”

Working in partnership with the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the US, Sheil and his team made a startling discovery: “No-one really knew where the light was coming from. These machines are already printing chips; but it turns out that what people thought was the source only contributed about 10% of the radiation. We found out that 90% of the radiation comes from somewhere else. It seems mad that people have no idea where the light comes from. But that’s our job: to really dig into the nitty-gritty. And once you understand the nitty-gritty, you can start optimising.”

The work not only aims to create next-generation computer chips, but also to make them more sustainable. Generating EUV light for nanolithography is a highly energy intensive process, and Sheil is investigating how it can become more efficient to the benefit of both industry and the environment. “Everyone wants higher power, because higher power allows you to print more chips, and there’s a backlog with chip production. It’s about coupling the demand from society for more chips with a drive towards producing them in a more sustainable manner. We are researching alternative, more sustainable ways. And that’s where we can have an impact.”

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