It turns out, smaller is actually better. For microchips.
The Dutch company ASML has developed a next-generation extreme ultraviolet lithography machine that can produce microchips with never-before-seen levels of precision, possibly ensuring the continued miniaturization of chips for years to come, according to a press release on the company's website.
Welcome to the future of computing.
ASML's high-precision is key for incredibly tiny microchips
This comes on the heels of decades of development, including ASML's earlier unveiling its first extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography machines back in 2017. Since then, ASML's EUV lithography machines have produced many of the latest, most advanced chips for many applications, including iPhones, computers, and AI. But, crucially, ASML's latest iteration of this technique will minimize the wavelength of UV light used in the operation of the devices. By extension, this will reduce the size of many microchip features while simultaneously boosting performance. Current EUV lithography machines are monstrous in size, with each unit roughly the size of a bus, and at a cost of roughly $150 million per unit. They are composed of roughly 100,000 parts and require miles of cabling. At this scale and level of complexity, only a few companies worldwide can afford or even house them, including Taiwan's TSMC, South Korea's Samsung, and, of course, the United States' Intel.
“It is really an incredible machine,” said Jesús del Alamo, a professor at MIT who works on novel transistor architectures, in a Wired report. “It’s an absolutely revolutionary product, a breakthrough that is going to give a new lease of life to the industry for years.” One of the most important components for this new machine is currently being manufactured in Connecticut. Made from aluminum, it will form a frame to hold the machine's mask (or reticule). This piece will move with nanometer levels of precision, enabling the ultra-precise control of an extremely narrow beam of UV light. This light will then be used to "pinball" several mirrors that will, in turn, be shaped and polished to very precise specifications. This high level of precision of all parts is absolutely critical, since they'll need to etch features in computer chips only a few atoms wide.
Once complete, the part will be shipped to Veldhoven in the Netherlands by the end of 2021. After it arrives, the part will be added to the prototype for ASML's newest EUV machine early in 2022. And Intel has already expressed interest in acquiring one of these new machines, which it hopes can begin production of the next generation of microchips as early as 2023. Notably, the level of precision ASML's new EUV machines can offer may enable future chips to become even smaller, more powerful, and incredibly efficient. And on the consumer side of the industry, this might provide even more powerful and capable handheld devices, like smartphones and cloud computers. It should also provide never-before-seen possibilities for other adjacent technologies, including advances in AI, biotechnology, and, of course, robotics.
On a more general level, this impending microchip revolution raises the possibility of resurrecting Gordon Moore. Well, not really the man, but his famous law of electronics: Moore's Law — which is the well-known notion that computer processing power will undergo an exponential increase every couple of years — has been declared dead by some. But techniques like EUV, in addition to ASML's latest breakthrough, could mean the law is just catching its breath, in a manner of speaking.
ASML's new EUV could also be geopolitically important
And the machine may also have critical geopolitical importance in the coming years: The mounting chip shortage created by the effective global 2020 shutdown may have opened a new niche for machines like ASML's latest creation to fill. And we can't stress enough how pivotal this might be for the increasingly strained relations between the U.S. and China.
In fact, the U.S. successfully lobbied the Dutch government (and by extension ASML) to decline to grant export licenses for shipping the machines to China. “You can’t make leading-edge chips without ASML’s machines,” explains Will Hunt, a research analyst at Georgetown University studying the geopolitics of chipmaking. “A lot of it comes down to years and years of tinkering with things and experimenting, and it’s very difficult to get access to that.”
The coming years will surely be very lucrative for ASML. The company's executive team expects a 35% jump in sales before the 2021 fiscal year is finished. Microchips continue to shrink in scale as the computing industry edges into nanotechnology, and with several other fields of cutting-edge tech intersecting, like deep-learning AI and quantum computing (the records for which seem to be broken several times per year), there's far too much to risk looking away from the rapidly-advancing pace of increasingly-tiny microchips.