By next year, the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering in Albany will be able to provide the tech companies the resources they need to transform the way they manufacture computer chips.
The college’s Global 450 Consortium, housed within the NanoFab Xtension building, has received a majority of the tools needed for companies to work on the next generation of computer chip production.
The nanocollege has 43 tools, worth more than $350 million, that GlobalFoundries, IBM, Intel, Samsung and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company will use to research the process of building chips on larger platforms.
Computer chips are etched on silicon wafers. The current industry standard is 300 mm wafers, which are nearly 12 inches in diameter. But the five companies are looking to move to 450 mm wafers that are 18 inches in diameter.
The larger 450 mm wafers will allow manufacturers to build more computer chips on each. The ultimate goal is to transition the whole industry to 450 mm wafers, which is expected to boost production and efficiency and to drive down costs.
“This is a collaborative program, we have assignees from five member companies plus CNSE,” said Paul Farrar, general manager of the consortium. “Obviously this will be a tremendous resource for the industry, for the companies as well as the equipment suppliers. Similar to what we do today with 300 mm, we have worked with many equipment suppliers and their partners on development.”
A total of 56 tools are slated for the consortium. The remaining 13 tools will be shipped and assembled in Albany by the end of next year. Farrar says that is a huge step for the college and its private partners.
The tools are set up in the nanocollege’s 50,000-square-foot clean room facility, which provides a sterile environment for the small-scale technology of making computer chips that are in smart phones, tablets and other devices.
“This is on the leading edge of the capabilities being done in New York,” Farrar said. “I expect that we will have all of the tools delivered by the end of 2015, early 2016. There are certain types of tools that are not yet developed. When we get all of the tools we will be able to produce all of the steps for research.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the consortium, nicknamed the G450C, in September 2011. The five computer chip companies invested a total of $4.8 billion to partner on 450 mm research and development through 2016.
The partnership enables the companies to work together toward their 450 mm goal without having to immediately invest in the equipment and facilities needed to switch to larger platforms independently.
“The program here has investments being made in many places. Each of the companies make significant investments on their own,” Farrar said. “They also then get some value and payment from the consortium. This is all only a small fraction of what this really would cost to do. That is true for all of the companies.”
Nikon Corp. signed on to partner with the consortium in July. The Japanese company, known for its camera products, invested $300 million and is expected to create up to 100 high-tech jobs in Albany and other locations.
Nikon recently said its 450 mm immersion photolithography tool would be delivered to the nanocollege by next April. In the meantime, the company will start sending 450 mm wafers to the college in June.
The photolithography tool uses intense light to imprint circuitry on wafers, one of the major steps in manufacturing nanometer size transistors that are the building blocks of computer chips. Wafers that will be shipped to the college this summer will be patterned with that circuitry.
“New York is becoming a world leader in nanotechnology which is creating jobs and growing our economy in upstate New York,” Cuomo said in a news release Wednesday announcing Nikon’s tool delivery. “These public-private partnerships are spurring innovations that will one day change the way we live our lives.”
The nanocollege is a more than $20 billion complex with about 3,100 employees. The college’s CEO, Alain Kaloyeros, and Cuomo are working to push its public-private model into other parts of the state including Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Utica.
Farrar said because of the nanocollege’s collaborative model, companies such as GlobalFoundries would be prepared to start mass-producing chips on larger wafers. But when will they make that leap?
“That is the one question all five members asked me never to answer,” Farrar said. “That’s their decision and to execute the technology. Intel said they would use the technology by the end of the decade.”