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Small is beautiful
Imagine trying to measure and quality check objects you cannot see at high speed during a manufacturing process.This is the challenge faced by manufacturers of semiconductor chips used in smart phones and other electronic gadgets as they become ever smaller and more sophisticated to meet consumer demand for compact design combined with higher functionality and lower power.
The solution could be provided by Infinitesima, an Oxford company specialising in innovative nanoscale microscopy technology that looks set to radically change the semiconductor manufacturing industry.
The optical microscope we are all familiar with enables the human eye to see objects such as cells and human hair but semiconductor chips are made on a far smaller scale.
To get some idea of the scale involved, if you took an object measuring one millimetre and divided it into one million parts this would be one nanometre.
The transistors on a chip today, such as a microprocessor in a smartphone, measure about 22 nanometres and will shrink even more in future. In fact, six million of these 22 nanometre transistors could fit in the full stop at the end of this sentence.
While major semiconductor firms such as Intel and Samsung need to control the quality of chips at high speed during manufacturing, research scientists also need to view samples at the nanoscale in order to gather scientific data. For both users, currently, there are only two ways to ‘view’ these samples.
One method is to use a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) to fire a beam of electrons at the sample. Electrons have a wavelength smaller than that of visible light and can image at the nanoscale. Invented in 1935, the SEMs of today create an image in a second, a speed which allows it to be widely deployed in chip manufacturing. The SEM market is worth about £1.3bn per year.
However, SEMs have to be operated within a vacuum which is not very friendly to all materials. As the semiconductor industry uses increasingly exotic materials to make smaller transistors, these materials are being damaged by the process.
An alternative method is to scan a surface with a microscopic probe and measure molecular forces to create an image.
The Atomic Force Microscope (AFM) was invented in the 1980s and operates without a vacuum environment.
But the process takes several minutes, making it unviable for the competitive manufacturing market where every second counts.
This position now looks set for radical change by Infinitesima, a growing company at Oxford Centre for Innovation that has created a new kind of probe microscope similar to an AFM but capable of producing images in under a second.
Infinitesima’s revolutionary new Rapid Probe Microscopy (RPM) technology means images can be generated in a matter of milliseconds with no need to use a vacuum chamber and no restrictions on materials that can be scanned.
Chief executive officer, Jeff Lyons, believes the RPM technology will be industry changing.
He said: “With the RPM, we are taking the scanning probe microscope into the manufacturing process because we have overcome the speed problem."
Mr Lyons likens the nanoscale imaging process to “looking from a helicopter onto a football pitch to locate a blade of grass, find an insect on that blade of grass and take photographs of it. This is something we can do in less than a second.”
The patented RPM technology was developed by Infinitesima's founder and chief technology officer, Dr Andrew Humphris, while carrying out research at the University of Bristol. The company's name derives from ‘infinitesimal’, the mathematical term for objects deemed too small to see or measure. Needless to say, industry is interested in adopting Infinitesima’s technology.
Mr Lyons said: “The number of transistors within chips is doubling every 18 months to meet higher functionality requirements and manufacturers are making them smaller and smaller.
“The new materials required to achieve this are susceptible to damage from the SEM’s vacuum chambers so manufacturers are increasingly interested in alternatives.
“To succeed in the highly competitive semiconductor industry, people say companies require ‘an unfair technology advantage’. By increasing the speed of scanning probe microscopy by one thousand fold, we believe that is what the RPM represents.”
Mr Lyons, a semi-conductor industry veteran, spends much of his time travelling as Infinitesima is involved with key companies in the United States, Europe and Asia. Its customers are automated tool manufacturers which construct equipment for semi-conductor chip manufacturing plants.
Infinitesima manufactures its RPM at its Oxford facilities where it can also simulate an automated tool environment for technology demonstrations. The team is international, drawing on the local pool of engineering talent, and financial backing has come from business angel investment and government grants.
Mr Lyons said: “We are making excellent progress and look forward to continuing to lead the effort in commercialising nanotechnology in the UK.”
Contact: 01865 261404 Web: www.infinitesima.com