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Next-gen scope

When someone says that a technology marks the "end of an era" and is "the first quantum step" in a certain domain "in the last 30 years," such claims trigger any good journalist's hypeometer. But given the historical parade of impressive technological innovations concocted by semiconductor propellerheads, it's best not to dismiss such declarations out of hand, either.

At the recent Semicon West marathon, Bill Ward, president and cofounder of start-up ALIS Corp., used those very charged words when describing his company's subnanometer-scale (as in quarter-nanometer resolution) microscopy breakthrough. The reason for his überconfident attitude? Helium-ion-beam (HeIB) technology, which he calls "the perfect point source."

After a decade of development work, Ward says he and his colleagues have made breakthroughs that will turn the scanning HeIB microscope from exotic research instrument into commercial tool. Pegged to replace SEM as the electron-beam workhorse confronts its performance limits, the initial ALIS systems will be designed for failure-analysis uses, with CD measurement and defect inspection and review not far behind. Clarke Fenner, vp of biz dev, claims chipmakers have already asked, "How quickly can you build a tool for my fab line?"

ALIS has been running applications work on a proof-of-concept/development tool at its Peabody, MA, cleanrooms but is seeking more partners and working as fast as it can to build production prototypes. After all, Ward quips, "we're in the business of turning physics into money."

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