Thursday, July 10, 2008

Lithography breakthrough could deliver cheaper solar


Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said this week that they’ve found a way to etch pattern onto a chip lines less than 25 nanometers apart. This has huge implications for lowering costs across the chip industry, including for photovoltaic cells used in solar panels.

Chip makers are always striving to cram more transistors onto a chip in order to increase the processing abilities of a semiconductor. But at the same time, chip makers are also trying to put more chips on a wafer, so there’s a need to make the chips themselves smaller. It’s like putting more and more penguins on a shrinking iceberg.

The field is known as nanolithography. Lithography, where lines are etched or imprinted on chips, is a difficult problem in the chipmaking world as chips shrink and more transistors are expected to fit on the semiconductor. Currently Intel is making some of its high-end laptop chips at 45 nanometers and expects to go to 32 nanometers by 2011. The MIT research demonstrates the ability to etch such lines across larger surface areas — which would be good for PV cell manufacturers — and without some of the chemical treatments currently being used by others in nanolithography.

The MIT technique uses sound waves to control how a laser moves across the surface of a circuit while the laser is etching the lines. Other methods of lithography use equipment from startup Molecular Imprints, which imprints lines as small as 20 nanometers in a manner similar to a waffle iron or slower, electron-beam lithography efforts.

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