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Four Companies to Tackle New Chip Technology : Computers: IBM, AT&T, Loral Corp. and Motorola to join in developing X-ray lithography process.

October 07, 1994|LESLIE HELM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In an unusual collaboration that could help cement America's newly regained leadership in computer chip technology, AT&T, IBM, Motorola and Loral Corp. said Thursday that they would jointly develop a key manufacturing technology aimed at producing revolutionary advances in the power and sophistication of semiconductor chips.

The four companies said in a joint statement that they would pool their efforts in an arcane technology called X-ray lithography, which holds the promise of producing computer chips with circuits just one-tenth the width of the most advanced chips available today. The narrower the circuits, the more of them can be crammed onto a chip. Thus, microprocessor chips, which form the brain inside personal computers, could perform many more calculations per second, for example, or a memory chip could hold much more information.

AT&T, IBM and others, with substantial support from the Department of Defense, have spent hundreds of millions--perhaps billions--over the past two decades on X-ray lithography, but the process is still not commercially viable.

The companies did not say how much they would invest in the new joint effort, but it is expected to total tens of millions of dollars a year, and the federal government is expected to contribute comparable sums. Other companies, university research labs, and government labs are expected to join the effort.

"If we don't develop this we (semiconductor makers) are going to hit a dead end, a road block," said John Kelly, general manager of IBM Microelectronics. "We have to do this or the industry will stop." Scientists expect the X-ray process will be vital to commercial production around the turn of the century.

In a closely related development Thursday, Sematech, an industry-government consortium, pledged $30 million to help San Jose-based Silicon Valley Group, a major supplier of lithography equipment using the current technology, which employs ultraviolet light rather than X-rays to create circuit patterns. Canon of Japan has been negotiating with the company to either acquire it or license its technology.

Together, the two announcements signal a major challenge to Japan's leadership in the critical semiconductor equipment sector. Canon and Nikon dominate the $2-billion business of supplying the lithography machines, known in the industry as "steppers".

Japan has also been considered the leader in developing X-ray lithography, with major investments being made by NTT, the nation's telephone monopoly, and by a consortium of chip companies and government laboratories.

Dick Van Atta, special adviser to the Department of Defense on dual-use technology, said the technology is too important to allow America's dependence on Japan to continue. "Advanced lithography is necessary for advanced chips, and chips are the brains of our weapons system as well as of our computers," Van Atta said.

Not everybody agrees that X-ray lithography is the way to go. Intel Corp. scientists, for one, have publicly cast doubt on the efficacy of the technology and are conspicuously absent from the new consortium.

But a growing number of scientists agree that chip makers will have no alternative but to switch to X-ray technology around the turn of the century. And the Department of Defense has backed that view with money and clout.

Past efforts to counteract Japanese power in lithography, however, have been jinxed. GCA, a stepper manufacturer with advanced technology, went bankrupt last year when American chip makers were unwilling to take a chance on the financially unstable company.

The last American company seemed about to disappear early this year when Canon sought to acquire or license advanced technology from the Silicon Valley Group. SVG, as it is known, got its technology from another failed recipient of government aid, Perkin-Elmer.

Frustrated by such poor results, the Defense Department this year cut back its budget request for lithography research to $10 million for 1995 from a total of $58 million this year. But Sematech's offer to support SVG appears to be an industry show of support for the company and a direct response to the government's displeasure at the lack of past support for American equipment manufacturers. And Sematech itself has raised its stature by agreeing to wean itself from government funds.

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