Semiconductor companies are already starting to gear up for the next century. No wonder. Before the year 2000, they will need to shrink their transistors from the ultrasmall--0.75 microns across--to the ethereal--just 0.25 microns. That's 400 times thinner than a human hair. Tomorrow's superchips can then be packed with hundreds of millions of transistors, or 10 times the record now. And a year or two into the next century, 0.1-micron widths will be the cutting edge. That's tiny enough to cram billions of transistors on a chip.

To achieve such "gigascale" chips, semiconductor makers will probably have to scrap optical-based "printing" methods, which they've used for the past two decades, and turn to something like X-ray lithography. Cypress Semiconductor Corp. figures there's no point in dawdling. So the San Jose (Calif.) company may become the first to put X-ray lithography into commercial production. It has just purchased equipment from Hampshire Instruments Inc. in Rochester, N. Y. The $4 million system generates X-rays with a laser, not a room-size synchrotron, or atom smasher, that costs at least $30 million.

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