Government Labs Join Chip Research

From Washington Post

Three of the biggest names in the computer chip industry are expected to announce today that they’re joining with three government laboratories in a $250-million effort to develop an advanced chip-making process.

The project, led by Intel Corp. and including Motorola Inc. and Advanced Micro Devices, will rank in dollar terms as the largest commercial research partnership between industry and government.

The federal government’s national laboratories--including Lawrence Livermore, Lawrence Berkeley and Sandia, the three Department of Energy labs involved in the new chip project--have for years been building closer relationships with industry in an effort to stay relevant in the post-Cold War era.

Chip makers also are continually looking for ways to shrink the electrical circuits that enable a chip to store and process information: The smaller the circuits, the more of them can go on a single chip, making for a more powerful chip.

Most experts believe that within a decade or so the current photographic process will begin to hit the limits of physics and that a fundamentally new approach will be needed. The three companies and the three labs will be betting on a process called extreme ultraviolet.

Other developers will continue to work on competing alternatives using X-rays or particle beams.

If the work proves successful, it could make possible future generations of memory chips that would store 1,000 times more information than today’s most sophisticated versions. Microprocessors--the brains that run personal computers--could be 100 times faster, turning the kinds of computers that children use to learn arithmetic and play games into machines more powerful than the supercomputers of the early 1980s.

Intel, Motorola and AMD are establishing a nonprofit company called EUV LLC that will provide $130 million in cash to cover the salaries of government researchers, as well as $120 million of noncash aid. The three labs engaged in the project will have rights to use the resulting technologies for their own purposes.

Energy Secretary Federico Pena said the partnership with industry shows “how much confidence there is in the private sector in our labs.”

During the last eight years, the national labs have spent about $800 million developing technology in conjunction with industry. The weapons labs in particular--Livermore, Sandia and Los Alamos--believe that helping industry is critical if they’re to avoid major downsizing.

Those projects have had a mixed record. Many became mired in bureaucracy. Few created products that industry was eager to sell. And although the companies contributed people, materials and facilities, they have seldom helped pay the salaries of the government researchers.

The labs have acquired vast skills in electronics, precision machinery and miniaturization in the course of building bombs. Since the early 1990s, the national labs have spent about $25 million working on advanced lithography with companies that include Intel.

The government, facing budget pressure, cut off funding for the work. Intel first tried to persuade other chip makers to share the costs with it. When the others proved reluctant, Intel executives came up with a novel plan to create a limited-liability company and sell stakes in it to other firms in the industry over time. So far, only Motorola and AMD have joined in.

The “EUV” in the company name is the acronym for the technology it hopes to promote -- extreme ultraviolet. Instead of using normal light, the lithographic technique will rely on light that approaches X-rays. “Whoever controls the intellectual property will have a significant competitive advantage,” said Sander H. Wilson, an Intel manager who is also the business director for the EUV LLC.

However, not everyone in the industry agrees that extreme ultraviolet is the way to go. International Business Machines Corp. has invested 25 years and countless dollars working with X-ray technology. Bell Labs, the research arm of Lucent Technologies Inc., is exploring an approach it calls “Scapel” based on using beams of electrons. Some Japanese chip makers are dabbling in other approaches.

Whatever technology EUV does use, devices would be licensed to the companies that make equipment for building chips. Then Intel and the other EUV stakeholders would have first dibs on buying that new equipment, a crucial advantage in the fast-paced competition to build the best chips.