Chip technology earns Japan Prize

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Today’s processors owe advancement to chemically amplified photoresists. 

C. Grant Willson

Chemically Amplified Resists – “materials used in lithography to form the structures in today’s semiconductor devices” – developed at IBM’s research lab in San Jose in the early 1980s (the lab since moved to Almaden, CA in 1986) by professors C. Grant Willson (who was working at IBM Research at the time, and earned the rank of IBM Fellow for this work), and Jean M. J. Fréchet, who joined the team while on sabbatical from the University of Ottawa, and the late IBM Fellow Dr. Hiroshi Ito, earned the 2013 Japan Prize.

Jean M. J. Fréchet

Without Chemically Amplified Resists, Moore’s Law, the measure of progress applied to the entire semiconductor industry, would not exist. And everything from flash memory, DRAM, to video processor speed would be stuck in the 1980s (think 1,500 nanometer semiconductors, 16-bit, 20 MHz, 128Kb of memory). The IBM breakthrough led to the printing of sub-500 nm semiconductors onto silicon wafers, and the speed and (small) size of technology used today – that’s now pushing beyond 50nm.

Amplifying the effects
Hiroshi Ito

So, what did the team do differently? They developed a photoresist that could generate a chain reaction that, in turn, amplified low-intensity UV light (sub-250nm wave length, which was unusable in previous manufacturing) onto a substrate – creating a precise, high-contrast etchings on circuits at previously impossible sizes. This cascading effect has been employed in the manufacturing of semiconductors used in almost all electronics for the last 20 years – and will continue to drive compute speed and power into the foreseeable future.

The Japan Prize Foundation will recognize Willson of The University of Texas at Austin, and Fréchet of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in April of this year. The foundation has awarded the Japan Prize since 1985 “to scientists whose achievements contribute to the progress of science and technology and the promotion of peace and prosperity for humankind.”

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