The process of creating a pattern on a wafer is known as lithography. Typically, light is shone through a mask onto a photoresist that coats the wafer. After exposure, the photoresist is “developed,” which removes the exposed part of the resist (or the unexposed resist if it is negative resist). A photoresist coat/bake/develop system — often called a “track system” is typically connected directly to the wafer exposure tool or wafer “stepper.”
The exposed wafer is then etched, where the photoresist acts as a barrier to the etching chemicals or reaction ions. The photoresist is then removed by stripping or “ashing.” In complex integrated circuits, a modern CMOS wafer will go through the photolithographic cycle up to 50 times, making lithography one most critical process step.
Increasingly smaller wavelengths of light have been used to create smaller dimensions. Complex mask designs have also evolved, such as optical proximity correction (OPC), to correct for optical effects. Mask-source optimization techniques have also been developed to correct for variations in the source and on the wafer.
A push to extreme ultra-violet (EUV) lithography has been under way for a decade or more, led by ASML Lithography. Alternatives have also been research and developed, including nano-imprint lithography (NIL), which uses stencils and multi e-beam (MEB) lithography, which uses a large bank of individually controlled electron beams to expose the wafer directly (no mask required). More recently, an interesting approach called directed self-assembly (DSA) has been studied, which enables very small dimensions. DSA uses a guide structure on the wafer and polymer-based chemicals to create regular lines with very small dimensions.
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