Rapid Thermal Processing: Hot Stuff for Cool Chips

Thermal processes are vital to the making of an integrated circuit. By heating the silicon wafer chipmaker can drive chemical reactions to modify crystal structures, diffuse trace elements and grow tough insulating films – making devices faster, tougher and more reliable.

Up until the late nineties, these processes were usually performed on many wafers at a time in a special oven, called a furnace. However transistors had shrunk to the point where they would break down under the repeated long exposures to high temperatures that are unavoidable using furnaces.

Applied Vantage RadiancePlus
Applied Vantage RadiancePlus
The solution was to heat each wafer individually. Using powerful halogen lamps, this allowed the entire process to be completed in less than 30 seconds (hence the term rapid thermal processing). Applied’s RTP technology was quickly adopted across the chipmaking industry and allowed our customers to reach new heights of processor speed while greatly reducing the power consumption – critical at a time when we were demanding longer battery life from laptops and the new “personal digital assistants.”

By 2002, the flash memory revolution was in full swing and memory makers were struggling to increase manufacturing capacity to meet exploding demand. Anticipating this, Applied had been working on a new RTP machine which would give memory makers the RTP performance they were accustomed to in a (relatively) tiny footprint that could be installed and start cranking out chips quickly.

In September of that year, the Vantage was launched. Most chipmaking systems are, by necessity, huge. They’re shipped in several discrete modules and assembled on-site. The Vantage was different: small enough to ship in a single crate and quick to set up: some customers had it unboxed and working in barely more than a week. To make installation even easier, a smartphone-style docking station is shipped ahead of time. The customer connects up power, water and gases to the dock so that when the system itself arrives, it just snaps into place.

Applied Vantage Astra
Applied Vantage Astra

The Vantage was a hit. Within two years, it was the RTP machine of choice for every leading chipmaker. It still holds that position today, 500 systems later.

The technology hasn’t stood still, either. Our latest Vantage Astra™ system uses high-power lasers to heat the top few layers of atoms of the chip to over 1,000°C in less than a millisecond, a heating rate of an astonishing one million Celsius per second. This technology protects delicate circuit features, enabling chipmakers to create transistors and memory cells just a few tens of nanometers across and squeeze a billion transistors into a microprocessor.

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