New Zurich nanotech lab will help advance industry

July 23, 2002 — A new laboratory equipped with $7 million worth of equipment and $13 million worth of clean room infrastructure opened this month at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.

The nano and microtechnology facility, called FIRST (an acronym for Frontiers in Research, Space and Time), is staffed by a team of researchers who are required to balance basic research and joint R&D projects with high tech companies.

The first concrete products to emerge will be active photonic components, according to Andros Payne, chief executive of GigaTera Inc., based in Zurich. GigaTera is involved in one of the industrial/academic partnerships meant to commercialize research at the lab.

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Ursula Keller, who is also a co-founder of GigaTera, is a FIRST team member. Her company needs access to the lab to help shrink her breakthrough near-infrared laser into a matchbox size for installation in high-speed routers. Another project has GigaTera and researchers fabricating semiconductor mirrors that will also end up in the new lasers.

Another laser oriented firm active in the lab is OptoSpeed of Mezzovico, Switzerland, which makes lasers used in fiber optic transceivers and receivers. The company sells them to major equipment vendors such as Nortel Networks Corp. There is also Avalon Photonics Ltd. in Zurich, an Intel-backed maker of high-speed vertical cavity surface emitting laser (VCSEL) arrays and a spinoff of CSEM, a well-established microtechnology research institute in Switzerland.

Along with GigaTera, these firms are developing laser technologies with researchers at FIRST. “The lab’s approach is beneficial for both parties,” Payne said. “It is an opportunity to experiment with new approaches and cutting edge techniques. For academics it is a chance to apply their research in the market.”

It is likely that other technologies studied at the new lab — such as nanopatterning and nanomechanics — will emerge into industry if the track record of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology is any indication. There have been more than 125 official spinoff firms over the past five years from the institute’s Zurich campus alone. According to published reports, the university’s researchers spin off into commercial ventures at the same rate as those at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Stanford University.

The lab’s plan to combine basic and applied research is sensible from a commercial perspective, according to Marlene Bourne, a MEMS analyst with In-Stat/MDR. She said that to “move the technology forward,” these laboratories need to have “a bit of both, a balance between applied and basic research.”

One example on the research side is the work of Klaus Ensslin, who is using the lab’s atomic force microscope (AFM) for nanofabrication and nanolithography experiments. If successful, this technique will be important for future generations of integrated circuits.

Ensslin said he is tailoring the shapes and size of semiconductor nanostructures. His team sends a charge down the very sharp needle that forms the business end of an AFM. The charge oxidizes a tiny structure on top of the silicon substrate. In this way scientists “write” or lay in tiny 50-nanometerwide lines, which can then be used for the next phase of semiconductor wafer processing.

“Along with electron beam lithography, Ensslin’s technique represents the only way to achieve the extremely high resolution lithography required by future generations of processors,” said Peter De Wolf, the European metrology application manager for Veeco Instruments Inc., the company that supplied the Swiss lab with its AFM.

The Swiss lab is exploring both methods. It acquired its e-beam lithography system from Raith, so it is covering both bases in the race towards nanocircuits. It is unlikely that we will see either process making an impact on the chip industry within the next five years, according to Risto Puhakka, an analyst with VLSI Research.

He pointed out that new methods “take a long time to come to market. We have not factored in the use of AFM as a nanolithography tool in our market forecasts for the next five years,” Puhakka said.


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