First published in AMS business magazine. Authors: Jayne Robinson and Ed Aanhane
Back in 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore made an observation that would shape the next 50 years of technological innovation. His famous prediction that every two years technology would shrink by half became known as ‘Moore’s Law’ and has held true for half a century, setting the pace for our modern digital revolution. The scaling down of microelectronics has occurred hand in hand with our modern lives. Technology that just 50 years ago filled an entire room is now available in a single microchip, and we’ve all heard the old adage that a modern-day smartphone has many times the processing power of the Apollo computers which took us to the moon. But even more amazing is the sheer speed at which this scaling down has occurred. For 50 years technology has bounded on, hardly drawing breath as it shrunk down again and again in accordance with Moore’s Law, eventually to the nanoscale. After such a zealous sprint, it’s unsurprising that ever more effort is required to maintain this pace of scaling down. And as Moore’s Law shrinks towards its seemingly unavoidable conclusion, an inevitable question arises: how much smaller we can actually take technology – and what will the next 50 years hold for the field of nanolithography? Never a city to shy away from a challenge, Amsterdam created the Advanced Research Centre for Nanolithography (ARCNL) three years ago, in direct response to one of the most significant technological predicaments of our time. That is, developing the tools needed to build the nanotechnology of the future and keep the train of innovation on track. The organisation that inspired the creation of the ARCNL was Dutch semiconductor equipment manufacturer ASML. Employing more than 8,000 people at its headquarters in Veldhoven, the company’s guiding principle is continuing Moore’s Law with ever smaller, cheaper, more powerful and more energy-efficient semiconductors.
In the Dutch spirit of collaboration, ASML decided to reach out to the academic science community to help fuel the pace of their innovation. Their request was not for an applied science collaboration, but for a fundamental research institute, whose insights could potentially lead to applied capabilities in the future. Four different organisations made a bid to ASML for the partnership, and in 2013, a plan created by a cooperative group based at the Foundation for the Fundamental Research on Matter (FOM) in Amsterdam beat off stiff competition to be awarded the prestigious project. Partnering with FOM on this scientific dream team, in addition to parent organisation the Dutch Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), were Amsterdam’s two universities: University of Amsterdam (UvA) and the Vrije University Amsterdam (VU). Extra funding from the city of Amsterdam and the province of Noord-Holland completed the mix, and thus ARCNL sparked to life. While the partnership plan proposed by ARCNL was undoubtedly the strongest, its location at Amsterdam Science Park was also a key factor in it winning the project. Thanks to its world-class facilities, the knowledge-sharing scientific community and the attractive quality of life in Amsterdam, ARCNL proved an irresistible magnet to attract the best scientific minds from around the globe. Professor Joost Frenken, director of ARCNL explains: “ASML is quite efficient in exploring the local academic market in their Eindhoven area. So one of the appeals for them was that they were now going to fish in a completely new pond of expertise and experts – now with a whole army of experts mobilised to work on the development of technology for ASML.”
And so it came to pass. Opened at Amsterdam Science Park under the FOM umbrella, ARCNL today functions as an independent research institute housing up to 100 Dutch and international researchers. And it’s certainly in good company. This 70 hectare park in the east of the city boasts the highest concentration of publicly funded research in the Netherlands, being home to no less than eight UvA research institutes and three institutes of the NWO. So, now that it’s operational, what is ARCNL actually up to? In short, it’s a lab for fundamental long-term research, aiming not just to solve the problems of today or even this year, but developing knowledge that will impact technology for the next decade. Of course, the real question must be: how do we know what technology we’ll need five years from now? Professor Frenken believes it all comes down to a finely balanced combination of experience and vision. “You need some sort of gut feeling in a sense. On the other hand, what a company like ASML does is to really think ahead. To be able to create the products their customers will need five years from now, ASML needs to be able to already predict them now. And this is where Moore’s Law comes in. Since the mid-1960s, Moore’s Law has not just been an observation but it has served as the roadmap for the industry. ASML made a pact with all their colleagues in their field to stick to that law. This means that the law always tells them where to be five years from now – actually getting there takes collective collaboration, of course. This means that ASML has to work on this, Intel has to work on it – all their suppliers and customers have to work on it, too. The industry knows five or ten years in advance how small dimensions need to be, how cheap structures need to be, what other conditions need to be met. They can collectively decide upon these things with Moore’s Law as a guiding principle.”
Fuelling the fires of innovation
ARCNL is made up of nine research projects, all focusing on a particular part of the chip-producing process. These range from the laser used to create the tin plasma and the nano layers in the mirrors that focus light all the way to the photoresist layers on the silicon wafer on which the actual chips are being created. But no matter what angle each project is coming from, their overarching goal is to unravel the fundamental principles behind the techniques used in nanolithography. The initial research programme of ARCNL has a strong emphasis on the physics involved in the generation of high intensities of EUV light, optical elements for EUV light, EUV photo-chemistry, and a variety of future technologies and associated phenomena. But the main focus of the institute’s research will evolve alongside changing scientific insights to keep the ARCNL continually at the forefront of this cutting edge field, and well positioned to make breakthroughs in nanolithography that will inform and shape the technology in everything from computers and communication devices through to vehicles and household equipment. As Professor Frenken explains, “You need to put more wood on the fire to keep it going, and you also need to mobilise more brains to keep building the blaze at that high speed. And that’s what we are for. ASML recognises that, as time advances, it will require more and more intellectual input to keep going. They’re visionary, and they’d like to work with academia because they really see that, to get further, we need to work on two fronts: we need to advance our knowledge and we need to very quickly get that new knowledge incorporated into practical technology. That’s what ASML is extremely good at. So working as a team is the best thing that we can do.”