For more than 40 years, the microelectronics industry has made ever-smaller, usually-cheaper, and more-powerful circuits using one set of basic manufacturing methods. Scientists now report that tweaks to a key optical process improve those methods. The advances may be enough to permit conventional manufacturing practices to meet the demand for the smaller-than-ever circuits for a decade or so.
In one step in the fabricating of chips' transistors and other components, manufacturers project patterns of light onto silicon wafers. Defining the smallest components requires short-wavelength light. Currently, the industry uses 193-nanometer-wavelength laser radiation to make wires and other circuit parts as thin as 90 nm.
Shorter-wavelength radiations pose major challenges, so chip makers began exploiting a microscopy trick—putting a layer of water between a lens and the wafer. The water slows the 193-nm light and thereby shrinks its wavelength. However, this technique i