Nanotechnology: Still too early for tool industry’s attention?

By Matt Wickenheiser
WaferNews Editor

RAVE LLC CEO Barry Hopkins attended the NanoBusiness Spring 2002 conference in hopes of discovering the next generation of customers and applications for his company’s photomask-repair tools – hopefully customers in the emerging field of nanotechnology, which could possibly run counter-cyclical to the chip industry’s peaks and valleys.

“RAVE, with respect to its original market niche, is well-established,” Hopkins told WaferNews. “We’re attending this conference to wrap our arms around the next customer type.”

What Hopkins found, however, was what he described as a “cottage industry” – while about 300 entrepreneurs and investors attended the conference, it was clear that most innovators are working independently, and no infrastructure or industry roadmap is readily apparent.

The nature of nanotechnology is still nascent, and while Hopkins saw few short-term opportunities, he did see some mid-range possibilities, maybe three to five years out. Hopkins likened the field to “sort of a gold rush for the 21st Century,” and said he thought the chipmakers needed to start looking at the technology, as well the toolmakers – particularly in the vacuum, manipulation, inspection, and lithography segments.

“I believe the pick and shovel types will be the early benefactors of this industry,” suggested Hopkins, one of the only toolmakers in attendance.

In Hopkins’ case, he believes RAVE’s tools could be useful in nanotechnology prototyping labs, essentially using the machines to fix defects and continue work, rather than letting problems send an innovator back to the beginning.

RAVE, of Delray Beach, FL, has developed a nanomachining technology that combines atomic force microscopy (AFM), cantilevers, nanobit technology, and 3-D software. Its nm 1300 advanced mask repair system is essentially a computer-controlled milling and shaping machine that operates at the nanometer level. This new tool can detect defects smaller than 100nm in size and has sub-10nm trench depth and sub-25nm edge controls.

Noticeably missing from the conference were some of the “big guys,” remarked Hopkins, some of which stand to benefit from nanotechnology – DuPont’s materials group, for example, or, on the drug delivery side, Merck & Co. The industry may benefit from an International SEMATECH-style consortium, suggested Hopkins, which has been successful in bringing together the larger players that can benefit by work on process technologies.

While most companies in attendance were still in early stages, NanoMuscle, Antioch, CA, has successfully married nanotechnology to backend packaging to create tiny motors (actuators) based on a nickel titanium shape memory alloy (SMA), and has received an order from Hasbro (the toy company) for 10 million units.

“I think we’re ahead of the curve,” said Rod MacGregor, co-founder and CEO.

The market NanoMuscle is targeting isn’t child’s play – the $12 billion micro-motor industry includes automotive (the average car has 100 micromotors in it, controlling mirrors, A/C, etc.), domestics (the average home has 50, from vibrating cell phones and pagers to toys and autofocus cameras), and offices generally have 25-plus micromotors (including photocopiers, scanners and printers).

NanoMuscle’s actuators are 1/10th the price of traditional small electric motors, 1/20th the weight and 1/20th the volume of an equivalent DC motor, said MacGregor. The actuator is shorter than a matchstick, yet able to lift more than a third of a pound, MacGregor asserted.

The principals of SMA were applied to micromotors by developing a packaging process, said MacGregor. The semiconductor packaging technology was specifically co-opted, noted MacGregor, to take advantage of the existing infrastructure.

“All the IP is in the packaging,” explained MacGregor.

And all the packaging is in Korea.

NanoMuscle’s essentially a “fabless motor company,” MacGregor told WaferNews, with ASE Korea doing all the production, though ultimately NanoMuscle would like to be dual-sourced.

The macro-scale motion of a NanoMuscle actuator is produced by a large number of devices, each of which is only a few nanometers across. The devices are assembled into thin wires, each with a diameter of approximately 50-micron. Several of these wires are combined to produce a macro-scale linear motor with a stroke measured in millimeters. At the bottom of the NanoMuscle hierarchy, each nanometer-scale device is actually a single crystal of NiTi that has been treated to exhibit shape memory effect.

The nickel and titanium SMA in an actuator is stretched out across a set of supports. An electrical current is applied to the wire, forcing it to snap back to its original shape, providing the motion.

The fabless model allows the company to remain lean, said MacGregor, and NanoMuscle has about 20 employees, though it is looking to hire a VP of sales/marketing.

WaferNews

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