There's nothing quite like the manufacturing challenge facing the semiconductor business: The process is so delicate that contaminants too small to be visible under optical microscopes can ruin a chip. Even on the best fabricating lines, at least 20% will turn out to be defective. IBM Corp. estimates that worldwide, defects caused by contaminants cost the industry more than $1 billion a year.
Chipmakers and semiconductor-equipment companies have focused on improving clean-room quality and the purity of processing chemicals. Now, new research by IBM scientists points in a different direction: self-cleaning chipmaking tools.
The researchers used laser light to peer inside the vacuum chambers of plasma tools used in chipmaking. They found that during normal operations, a cloud of microscopic contaminants drifts over the silicon wafers on which the chips are made. They also discovered that a relatively inexpensive design modification of the tools could reduce the problem. In effect, the contaminants can be deflected away from the wafers--into an electrical "drainpipe"--and pumped out of the tool.