How microchips are becoming more and more powerful – and making artificial intelligence even better

Artificial intelligence is making the world increasingly more digital – and requires more and more processing power. Microchips are becoming more and more advanced to deliver this processing power.

80 percent of the world’s microchips are manufactured with ZEISS optics. This is where the heart of digitalization beats. And thanks to EUV technology, it is now possible to manufacture smaller and more powerful chips – thus upholding a famous law.

Gordon Moore was ahead of his time. In an article published in the magazine “Electronics” in 1965, the co-founder of U.S. semiconductor manufacturer Intel ventured a glimpse into the future of the chip industry. Expert opinions differed on this. Some called it science fiction. Nevertheless, many of the developments described by this visionary in the mid-sixties have actually come to fruition. Not least thanks to advances through artificial intelligence (AI).

Science fiction has become reality. And without microchips, the digital world we live in would not even be possible. We encounter them in many situations in life, from operating our fully automatic coffee machine in the morning to using voice control with our smartphones. Chips are in almost every electronic product we encounter. They are crucial for the application of artificial intelligence (AI), a key technology of the future. Without increasingly more powerful microchips, AI would not be possible – and the world we live in would be a different place without artificial intelligence.

Whether at work or in day-to-day life, algorithms are all around us, providing the basis for artificial intelligence. In smartphones, in the smart home, in the smart factory with Industry 4.0 and networked machines. Machine learning, speech recognition, autonomous driving: artificial intelligence is shifting the limits of the technically feasible. But the advancement driven by digitalization and AI requires more and more processing power. Microchips can provide this. So it is worth asking: How are semiconductors made? And what else can chips do?

Everyday artificial intelligence

  • There is a lot of AI in our smartphones.

    There is a lot of AI in our smartphones.

  • Smart housemates have also moved into modern households.

    Smart housemates have also moved into modern households.

  • During autonomous driving, artificial intelligence controls the car.

    During autonomous driving, artificial intelligence controls the car.

  • Algorithms are also used in research.

    Algorithms are also used in research as the basis for AI.

  • In voice control, we also encounter AI.

    In voice control, we also encounter AI.

  • AI is also revolutionizing medicine and science.

    AI is also revolutionizing medicine and science.

EUV technology writes new chapter in Moore’s Law

Quite a lot, if Gordon Moore has his way. In that 1965 article, the Intel co-founder put forward the thesis that is now known as Moore’s Law. It states that the processing power of a microchip doubles approximately every two years. Time and again, experts have believed that Moore’s Law will reach its limits. Time and again, they were wrong. It has since become clear that, in terms of optics, the almost 60-year-old assumption is set to continue into the next decade. How is this possible?

Thanks to EUV technology, also known as extreme ultraviolet radiation. This is the short answer. Dr. Peter Kürz has the full answer. He holds a doctorate in physics and has been working at ZEISS since 1996. Together with the company ASML, a partner network and thousands of researchers, ZEISS has brought a groundbreaking semiconductor manufacturing technology to series maturity. “EUV lithography has made it possible to image smaller structures on a wafer,” he explains. More than 25 years of development work went into the chip manufacturing solution that was awarded the German Future Prize in 2020 by President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. ZEISS now holds more than 2,000 patents in the field of EUV research.

Dr. Peter Kürz / photo: Ansgar Pudenz/German Future Prize

AI demands vast amounts of data and enormous processing power. This requires ever more powerful microchips. And these we make possible with EUV technology.

Dr. Peter Kürz

Head of Field of Business High-NA EUV at ZEISS

ZEISS Semiconductor Manufacturing Technology

Powerful semiconductors: the factor of light

Optical lithography has been the key technology for the production of microchips for more than 40 years. When using deep ultraviolet (DUV) technology, this process reached its technical and economic limits. “In order to achieve the processing power required by digitalization or artificial intelligence, while also reducing energy consumption and manufacturing costs per chip during chip production, we had to think in a completely new way,” reports Peter Kürz.

The researchers found the solution in the wavelength of light. ZEISS pioneer Ernst Abbe had already observed in the 19th century that the shorter the wavelength of light in an image, the better the resolution. For microchip manufacturing, this means the shorter the wavelength, the finer the structures on the wafer. But the wavelengths could not be shortened much further with DUV technology. So a new solution had to be found. With the help of EUV technology, it was finally possible to reduce the wavelength by a factor of 14 – from 193 to 13.5 nanometers. Structures 5,000 times thinner than a human hair can be imaged on a wafer using this technology.

ZEISS mirrors for the next EUV generation

With high-tech to high-tech

What now sounds so simple in theory is high technology in practice. “We’re talking about the world’s most precise mirrors and mechatronic systems that keep these mirrors extremely accurate. Scientifically, but also technically, there are enormous challenges,” Kürz explains. The EUV light creates a plasma that is 40 times hotter than the surface of the sun.

All these technologies are brought together in a complex machine – weighing a good 180 tonnes, the size of a school bus, and consisting of more than 100,000 individual parts. “This is among the most sophisticated machines ever built,” Kürz says. An innovation of this magnitude therefore requires a good team – and strong partners. The laser in the EUV source, for example, comes from the company Trumpf. The machine and EUV light source were developed by ASML – the world’s only manufacturer of EUV lithography machines. Together with ZEISS, it is responsible for the production of 80 percent of all microchips worldwide.


Strong partners

ZEISS in conversation with its development partners ASML and TRUMPF

ZEISS mirrors

Pushing the limits of what is possible

Artificial intelligence played a dual role here. On the one hand, AI is used, and on the other, AI is enabled. “Artificial intelligence helps us to recognize when we need to replace components in our production machines,” Kürz explains. But he sees the bigger connection in the role of ASML and ZEISS as enablers of digitalization, and in particular of this new technology, artificial intelligence. “AI requires vast amounts of data and enormous processing power. So this means more and more powerful microchips are needed. And we make this possible,” he says. He sees digitalization as the basis of technological progress. “This development makes changes possible that were thought to be impossible,” says the expert. He is driven by the need to push the boundaries of what is possible. AI enables this.

Instead of being satisfied with the results, the 57-year-old is already working with his team on the next stage of chip production development, i.e. a new generation of chips. The resolution of the optics should be improved even further with the help of high-NA-EUV optics, which offer a larger aperture angle. “If we increase the aperture angle of the optics – the numerical aperture (NA) – we can further increase the transistor density on the microchips, making the chip even more powerful,” Kürz explains. So things are looking good for the future of artificial intelligence and semiconductors. And Gordon Moore can also be pleased because it appears his law will be relevant for at least the next decade.


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