Could ultraviolet light lead to lower-cost microprocessors and then to lower-cost PCs? It might, if a U.K. research project pans out. Researchers at University College, London, have found a way to use UV light instead of energy-hungry blast furnaces to create the important silicon dioxide insulation layer on PC chips.
Creating a film of silicon dioxide on silicon wafers is an important stage in chip manufacturing: This film serves as the insulating layer into which chipmakers etch electrical circuits, among other functions. Chipmakers today bake silicon wafers in furnaces at up to 1,000 degrees centigrade to construct this silicon dioxide layer quickly.
The U.K. researchers have made the process work by using energy-efficient UV lamps, providing a cleaner and significantly less expensive solution. Set to the right wavelengths, UV lamps can create the silicon dioxide layer at room temperature, the researchers say.
Much testing remains, so it could be several years before the technology is ready for commercial use, says Ian Boyd, the project leader and chair of electronic materials at the university’s Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering. Some chip manufacturers have expressed interest in the research work, Boyd says, but chipmakers are famously conservative about making changes to their manufacturing processes.