Scientists at the National Institute of Standards and
Technology (NIST) have made the first direct
measurements of the infinitesimal expansion and collapse of thin
polymer films used in the manufacture of advanced semiconductor
devices. It’s a matter of only a couple of nanometers, but it
can be enough to affect the performance of next-generation chip
manufacturing. The NIST measurements, detailed in a new paper, offer a
new insight into the complex chemistry that enables the mass production
of powerful new integrated circuits.
The smallest critical features in memory or processor chips
include transistor “gates.” In today’s
most advanced chips, gate length is about 45 nanometers, and the
industry is aiming for 32-nanometer gates. To build the nearly one
billion transistors in modern microprocessors, manufacturers use
photolithography, the high-tech, nanoscale version of printing
technology. The semiconductor wafer is coated with a thin film of
photoresist, a polymer-based formulation, and exposed with a desired
pattern using masks and short wavelength light (193 nm). The light
changes the solubility of the exposed portions of the resist, and a
developer fluid is used to wash the resist away, leaving the pattern
which is used for further processing.
Exactly what happens at the interface between the exposed and
unexposed photoresist has become an important issue for the design of
32-nanometer processes. Most of the exposed areas of the photoresist
swell slightly and dissolve away when washed with the developer.
However this swelling can induce the polymer formulation to separate
(like oil and water) and alter the unexposed portions of the resist at
the edges of the pattern, roughening the edge. For a 32-nanometer
feature, manufacturers want to hold this roughness to at most about two
or three nanometers.
Industry models of the process have assumed a fairly simple
relationship in which edge roughness in the exposed
“latent” image in the photoresist transfers
directly to the developed pattern, but the NIST measurements reveal a
much more complicated process. By substituting deuterium-based heavy
water in the chemistry, the NIST team was able to use neutrons to
observe the entire process at a nanometer scale. They found that at the
edges of exposed areas the photoresist components interact to allow the
developer to penetrate several nanometers into the unexposed resist.
This interface region swells up and remains swollen during the rinsing
process, collapsing when the surface is dried. The magnitude of the
swelling is significantly larger than the molecules in the resist, and
the end effect can limit the ability of the photoresist to achieve the
needed edge resolution. On the plus side, say the researchers, their
measurements give new insight into how the resist chemistry could be
modified to control the swelling to optimal levels.