Smaller, Faster, Stronger!

Publish Date

08 DEC 2020


Kai Beckmann


In recent decades, continuous progress in semiconductor manufacture has made computers suitable for everyday use, affordable and, ultimately, so powerful and usable for such a variety of tasks that they support us in practically every area of life.

At Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany we have made a significant contribution to the triumphant success of computers. With our solutions, we ensure that the visions for the digital age become reality.

The limits of technical feasibility

The first computers were man-sized gray cabinets that weighed several metric tons and took up entire halls. That was in the middle of last century. Today, computers many times more powerful than those first computers can fit on our wrists. This astonishing development was possible thanks to enormous technical progress in semiconductor manufacture, which has allowed microchip components, especially transistors, to become smaller and smaller.

Transistors function as tiny switches in the circuits inside our computers. The more transistors can be accommodated on one chip, the more powerful the computer. Nowadays, transistors are so small that over 3,000 of them could fit in an area as wide as a human hair. We are now in the nanometer range.

As a result, the development and manufacturing processes of semiconductors are becoming more and more complex. While around 1,000 process steps were needed to produce a microchip ten years ago, today that number is over 2,000. Without fundamental innovations in semiconductor manufacture, the further development of microchips would have reached the limits of technical feasibility a long time ago. Not least, we must thank innovative chemical procedures and materials for the fact that increasingly small but nonetheless more powerful microchips can be manufactured.

Semiconductors are like magic

With our materials and solutions for the electronics industry and our expertise in the area of semiconductors, the Electronics business sector of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany has expanded the limits of chip manufacture in recent years.

So-called lithography processes are an important process step for the manufacture of microchips. Simply put, this process uses silicon sheets, known as wafers, which are covered with a light-sensitive photoresist and then irradiated by a kind of mask with a certain pattern. The photoresist is cured in the area that is hit by the light. The rest is washed off and the wafer is then chemically etched.

A novel method in the manufacture of computer chips, known as directed self-assembly (DSA), can considerably reduce the complexity and thus also the costs of production. In this process, which was developed by Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, molecules direct themselves – as the name suggests – and thus assemble the required material structures for the computer chip as if by magic.

This is possible thanks to so-called block copolymers. These materials consist of polymer chains that have special thermodynamic properties and repel one another similarly to oil and water. The similar components try to stick together, and the opposing components try to separate from one another. Under certain conditions, these block copolymers arrange themselves into uniform shapes. These periodic patterns form the basis for extremely fine transistors.

Increasingly small and thin tablets, smartphones and smartwatches require ever smaller batteries, hard drives and processors – at the same time, people increasingly expect more powerful devices.

3D-NAND is a still relatively new memory technology that has once again pushed the limits of technical feasibility one stage further. Previously, storage media were constructed in two dimensions. However, storage capacity is limited on a finite surface area. The solution is to expand the memory in three-dimensional space. Something that sounds so simple here would not have been possible without progress in the field of semiconductor chemistry.

A 3D-NAND chip can be pictured as a high-rise building in which the memory cells are stacked one on top of the other in layers, like floors, and connected vertically. This arrangement makes it possible to achieve higher storage density amid a constant or even decreasing surface area. This doesn’t just save space. Memory chips with 3D-NAND architecture are also significantly faster and more energy efficient than their two-dimensional counterparts. All major manufacturers, including Samsung, Intel and Toshiba now use this technology.

Chemistry for the digital transformation

Technological breakthroughs, such as DSA and 3D-NAND would not be possible without continuous progress on the particle level. The significance of research and development work on chemical procedures and materials for the digital transformation can hardly be overestimated. Even if the spotlight continues to shine on names, such as Apple, Intel or Nvidia. At Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, we are proud that our solutions for semiconductor manufacture lay the foundation for technologies, such as artificial intelligence, 5G or the Internet of Things. Only with the right materials and solutions can continuously increasing demands on computers as regards performance, durability and energy and cost efficiency, continue to be met.

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