As Intel, Samsung, TSMC, and Japan’s upcoming advanced foundry Rapiduseach make their separate preparations to cram more and more transistors into every square millimeter of silicon, one thing they all have in common is that the extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography technology underpinning their efforts is extremely complex, extremely expensive, and extremely costly to operate. A prime reason is that the source of this system’s 13.5-nanometer light is the precise and costly process of blasting flying droplets of molten tin with the most powerful commercial lasers on the planet.

But an unconventional alternative is in the works. A group of researchers at the High Energy Accelerator Research Organization, known as KEK, in Tsukuba, Japan, is betting EUV lithography might be cheaper, quicker, and more efficient if it harnesses the power of a particle accelerator.

Even before the first EUV machines had been installed in fabs, researchers saw possibilities for EUV lithography using a powerful light source called a free-electron laser (FEL), which is generated by a particle accelerator. However, not just any particle accelerator will do, say the scientists at KEK. They claim the best candidate for EUV lithography incorporates the particle-accelerator version of regenerative braking. Known as an energy recovery linear accelerator, it could enable a free electron laser to economically generate tens of kilowatts of EUV power. This is more than enough to drive not one but many next-generation lithography machines simultaneously, pushing down the cost of advanced chipmaking.

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