Once upon a time, lithographic (litho) processes were all that IC fabs needed to transfer the design-intent into silicon chips. Over the last 10-15 years, however, IC device structural features have continued to shrink below half the wavelength of the laser light used in litho tools, such that additional process steps are needed to form the desired features. Self-Aligned Double Patterning (SADP) schemes use precise coatings deposited as “spacers” on the sidewalls of mandrels made from developed photoresist or a sacrificial material at a given pitch, such that after selective mandrel etching the spacers pitch-split. SADP has been used in HVM IC fabs for many years now. Self-Aligned Quadruple Pattering (SAQP) has reportedly been deployed in a memory IC fab, too.
An excellent overview of the patterning complexities of SAQP was provided by Sophie Thibaut of TEL in a presentation at SPIE-AL on “SAQP integration using spacer on spacer pitch splitting at the resist level for sub-32nm pitch applications.” Use of a spacer-on-spacer process flow—enabled by clever combinations of SiO2 and TiO2 spacers deposited by Atomic Layer Deposition (ALD)—requires the following unit-process steps:
1 193i litho,
2 ALD spacers,
2 wet etches, and
4 plasma etches.
Since non-litho processes dominate the transfer of design-intent to silicon, from first principles we should consider such integrated flows as “patterning.” Etch selectivity to remove one material while leaving another, and deposition dependent on underlying materials determine much of the pattern fidelity. Such process flows are new to IC fabs, but have been used for decades in the manufacturing of Micro-Electrical Mechanical Systems (MEMS), though generally on a patterning length scale of microns instead of the nanometers needed for advanced ICs. R&D labs today are even experimenting with Self-Aligned Octuple Patterning (SAOP), and based on the legacy of MEMS processing it certainly could be done.