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How to Peel a Microchip - Atomic Layer by Atomic Layer...

Originally published 13 December 1995

Peeling a grape is difficult enough but if you want a real challenge try peeling a microchip. Microchips or semiconductors have become so compact and so complex that a huge amount of research is required to develop equipment to process and test them.

One of the principal techniques used to test semiconductor construction is "secondary ion mass spectrometry" (or SIMS). SIMS is used to peel away the atoms in semiconductor analysing the delicately designed make up of each layer as it does so. It uses a beam of ions to remove atoms of the material for analysis (like sandblasting on an atomic scale).

Manufacturers of modern semiconductors need the layers to be incredibly thin and the total thickness of the active part of a chip may be less than one thousandth the diameter of a human hair. Normally, the ion beam used in this technique shatters and destroys the make up of each delicate complex layer before it can be properly analysed. However researchers at the University of Warwick led by Dr Mark Dowsett have come up with a remarkable new approach to SIMS which makes use of a device known as a Floating Low Energy Ion Gun (or FLIG).

The FLIG device can carefully peel off each layer without causing the sort of disruption that would prevent any meaningful examination. The device is able to carry out this feat because it can operate at less than 10% of the energy levels of its nearest competitor while delivering 10-100 times more current. As a result, the SIMS instrument on which the FLIG is mounted can discern layer structures only three atoms wide. The device has attracted world wide interest and is being marketed by Southampton based company, Ionoptika. The first sale of a FLIG machine has already been agreed with German company Atomika GmbH, who will fit it to their commercial SIMS instruments.

Note for editors - the development of the machine was supported by the R.W. Paul Instrument Fund

For further details please contact:

Dr Mark Dowsett,
Department of Physics
University of Warwick
Tel: 024 76 523900


Further information about the above press release and all other media services at the University of Warwick can be obtained from:

Peter Dunn, Press Officer
Public Affairs Office
Senate House
University of Warwick
Coventry, CV4 7AL
West Midlands
Tel: 024 76 523708