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July 11, 2011
Volume 89, Number 28
p. 9

Electronic Chemicals

Behind the scenes, materials suppliers help make electronics faster, brighter, smaller, cheaper

Jean-François Tremblay

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Pushing the limits of the feasible is standard in the electronics industry. Apple’s iPhone has more processing power than desktop computers did a mere 10 years ago. Relatively cheap products like the Amazon Kindle can hold a library of books. Flat-screen televisions are now larger and more brilliant than ever, yet consume less power.

Better components enable the development of popular consumer items. And performance materials provided by chemical companies, in turn, enable the manufacture of these components.

For chemical companies, developing new materials for electronics is becoming increasingly complex. In the memory chips that make smartphones and laptops speedy, it wasn’t long ago that the standard interconnecting material was aluminum and the dielectric insulator was silicon dioxide. Today, copper interconnects and hafnium-based dielectrics prevail. And it’s not clear what the standard dielectric material will be for the generation of memory chips that will be mass-produced in the next few years.

Even worse, materials makers don’t even know what types of memory chips their clients will be producing in 2015. As the first story in this package explains, DRAM and flash memory will still be industry mainstays. But other chip architectures are poised to enter the mainstream, primarily due to the mounting challenge of making DRAM circuitry ever smaller.

Shrinking the circuitry of microchips presents difficulties in lithography. Semiconductor industry participants are generally surprised by how much mileage they have squeezed out of 193-nm lithography, which they had expected would be outdated by now. The second story details how materials suppliers have helped extend 193-nm lithography and how they are preparing for the next generation of lithography based on extreme ultraviolet light.

The future seems clearer for materials companies that supply the light-emitting diode industry. Adoption of LED lighting devices has enjoyed several growth spurts, starting with cell phones and laptops, moving to televisions, and now emerging in residential applications. The third story chronicles the scramble by materials companies to ramp up supply of trimethylgallium, which is needed to create the semiconductor at the heart of a white LED.

The electronic materials market is fast paced and potentially very profitable, but it is not for the faint of heart. Spending precious research dollars on new materials that may or may not be adopted is enough to keep any R&D director up at night.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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