SCIENCE & ENGINEERING NEWS
Oak Ridge, TENN. — nLine, a start-up Austin, Texas, company using a technology developed at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), has received an Advanced Technology Program award of $9.4 million.
The Department of Commerce award will allow nLine and partners to speed development of a second-generation semiconductor wafer inspection system that will significantly exceed the defect detection sensitivity and wafer throughput of conventional inspection systems.
In the semiconductor industry, manufacturers start with a silicon wafer to produce the tiny computer chips pervasive in today’s products. nLine’s patented inspection system is expected to contribute to maintaining the United States semiconductor industry’s competitive edge.
“Our inspection products are based on a proprietary technology called Direct-to-Digital Holography,” said Paul Jones, chief marketing officer and founder of nLine Corp., which employs 24, but that number is expected to hit 30 within a few months. “The technique significantly extends the resolving power of optical systems. For the first time ever, true holographic images can be digitally recorded and precisely analyzed in real time.”
This is all especially significant, Jones said, because the wafer defect inspection market is forecast by VLSI Research to grow from $750 million in 1999 to $3.8 billion in 2005.
“With our technology, we can locate and detect microscopic defects that previously were undetectable – and we can do it much faster,” Jones said. “During visits to major semiconductor manufacturers, we’ve gathered a great deal of positive feedback confirming our belief that this is of great concern to the manufacturers.”
Over the last three decades, the demand for better, more powerful chips has been tremendous. At the same time, the semiconductor industry has been confronted with increasing worldwide competition, so it is facing pressure to keep production costs low. The system from nLine should help.
nLine’s first product will be a high-sensitivity, high-throughput wafer inspection system designed to meet the industry’s pressing need for high aspect ratio inspection, an increasingly critical application for which no other solution exists. Industry experts expect high aspect ratio inspection to account for 25 percent of the total wafer defect inspection market within five years.
The technology was developed by Tommy Thomas, formerly of ORNL’s Instrumentation and Controls Division, Greg Hanson (I&C Division), Larry Baylor and Dave Rasmussen of the Fusion Energy Division and Edgar Voelkl of the Metals and Ceramics Division.
nLine licensed the technology and entered into a cooperative research and development agreement with ORNL late last year. It’s a relationship expected to flourish in coming years.
“Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s expertise in holography, image processing, high-speed computing and systems engineering has been instrumental in the development of innovative technologies such as Direct-to-Digital Holography,” said Robert Owen, president and chief executive officer of nLine. “We have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship and nLine looks forward to working with ORNL in the continued development of direct-to-digital holographic technology under this program.”
Jan Haerer, director of Technology Transfer and Economic Development for ORNL, said, “The partnership between ORNL and nLine is an example of ORNL’s increasing proactivity in creating start-up companies based on technology developed at ORNL. Not only was ORNL a developer of commercially valuable technology, but ORNL participated in the creation of nLine Corporation, licensed the technology to nLine, and is supporting nLine’s commercialization efforts through a cooperative research and development agreement.”
In addition to ORNL, nLine’s partners in the three-year development program are InterScience of Troy, N.Y., Light Age of Somerset, N.J. and PixelVision of Tigard, Ore.
Advanced Technology Program awards are made on the basis of a competitive review that considers scientific and technical merit and its potential benefits to the U.S. economy. nLine’s was one of 54 selected for funding under a matching program in which nLine will invest $9.8 million over the next three years. ORNL is a DOE multiprogram facility operated by UT-Battelle.