According to insights from supply chain executives, the chipmaking industry is undergoing a transformation where new materials and advanced chemicals are assuming a pivotal role. Notably, companies like TSMC and Intel are pushing existing production technologies to their limits to acquire the 2nm chip milestone.
A Swift in materials and chemicals’ roles in advancing semiconductor production technology
As Moore’s Law, indicating that as transistors continue to shrink, the chips become more powerful, experiences a slowdown, senior executives from Entegris and Merck emphasized the evolving landscape of the global chip race in a interview with Nikkei Asia.
James O’Neill, the Chief Technology Officer of Entegris, pointed out that the focus has shifted from chipmaking machines/ equipments to advanced materials and cleaning solutions as a pivotal role in facilitating advanced production processes. According to James O’Neill, thirty years ago, it was all about lithography as they see it as how effective a machine can print the circuit design defines how advanced the chips are.
However, he shared “Today, I think it’s a solid claim to make that materials innovation is the primary driver for improved performance”
Kai Beckmann, CEO of Merck’s electronics business, echoed this sentiment, emphasizing the shift towards the “age of materials.” While acknowledging the continued importance of tools, Beckmann highlighted that materials now as a crucial factor that make huge differences in advancing technologies. He also says, the current era is deemed critical not only for processors and logic chips but also for memory chip sectors, including DRAM and 3D NAND flash memory.
The race to mass-produce 2nm chips
The race to mass-produce 2-nanometer nodes by 2025 and the pursuit of more complex chips are key objectives for industry giants like TSMC, Samsung, and Intel.
Memory chip “giants” such as Samsung, SK Hynix, and Micron are striving to achieve higher position with 3D NAND flash, aiming for chips with up to 500 layers, from a current number of 230 layers. 3D NAND is a type of non-volatile flash memory in which the memory cells are stacked vertically in multiple layers, the more layers, the more the chip is viewed as advanced, with greater storage capacity.
The development of both processor (3D DRAM) and memory technologies (3D NAND) necessitates cutting-edge materials, as the transition to 2nm chips production (logic chip) requiring completely new chip architecture, specifically gate-all-around (GAA). Transistors are stacked in a more complex, three-dimensional way than before.
O’Neill compared the application of chemicals to 3D transistors to “spray painting New York City from a helicopter,” emphasizing the high level of difficulty in controlling the application precisely at various dimensions. Developing materials for innovative transistor configurations like GAA requires engineering at an atomic scale to coat all surfaces of the chip equally (top, bottoms and sides).
Chemicals are also becoming increasingly vital in ensuring consistent quality of advanced 2nm chips. O’Neill stated that the production yield emerging (the proportion of functioned chips in a batch) as a crucial factor for commercial competitiveness. Therefore, high-purity chemicals are essential in achieving effective production and minimizing defects.
Beckmann highlighted the industry’s material evolution, citing the exploration of alternative materials like molybdenum to replace copper in chipmaking processes, as “You need a completely new material set in order to make ever smaller nodes of cutting-edge chips possible”.
The continuous pursuit of innovation comes at a considerable cost. A 2nm chip wafer is estimated to cost up to $30,000, making it 50% more expensive than the previous generation (3nm chips), according to chip industry consultancy International Business Strategies.
“It’s a very capital-intensive industry,” Entegris CEO Bertrand Loy told Nikkei Asia. As the enormous cost creates a barrier for newcomers, major semiconductor players are expected to further dominate the industry with the new materials/ chemicals for the 2nm chips milestone. Governments worldwide, including the U.S., China, Europe, Japan, and India, are pushing for onshoring semiconductor production, with a view to acquire it as a source of their competitive advantage.