NEWS FROM JAPAN: SED shelved again; vacuum-ready laser scope; nanoimprint litho “lube”

June 4, 2007 – A roundup of news from the past week in Japan finds more delays in Canon/Toshiba’s planned rollout of SED TV technology, new business frontiers from companies selling pure water systems, and researchers touting work with quantum dots and laser microscopes that plug into vacuum environments for materials analysis.

SED delayed yet again, as Canon faces legal, competitive woes

Ongoing litigation with a US firm and struggles to reduce costs have caused Canon and Toshiba to once again delay their planned launch of TVs using new surface-conduction electron emitter displays (SED), according to various media reports. A new launch date, from the expected 4Q07 plan, has not been announced.

The two companies originally announced their SED plans in 2004, targeting TV sales for early 2006, but pulled back on that timeline after plunging prices for LCD and plasma TVs caused them to rethink production costs for the new technology.
They had been gearing up for mass production at Toshiba’s Himeji plant in Hyogo Prefecture, noted the Nikkei daily paper. And last month the Nikkei Business Daily reported that Canon Anelva Corp. “>was allowed to terminate its technology license to Canon Inc. because the latter had expanded its usage through its JV with Toshiba, though another subsequent ruling taken full control from partner Toshiba in their 50-50 JV, SED Inc. in an effort to smooth its dispute with Nano-Proprietary.

Besides the legal wrangling, Canon may be less interested in SED these days due to competing products, notes the Nikkei daily paper. Organic electroluminescence (OEL) is emerging as a popular choice for next-gen panel technology, with Sony and Toshiba each racing to commercialize their OEL offerings. Sony is due to release an 11-in. set as early as this year, and Toshiba is expected to launch a 30-in. set in FY09. Meanwhile, makers of mainstream LCD and plasma TV continue to improve their production costs to combat price declines — Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. is spending 280 billion yen (US ~$2.3 billion) for a fifth plasma TV plant in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, to increase volumes and reduce costs, the paper notes.

Water firms seek shelter under solar umbrella

Tired of the cyclical swings inherent to the semiconductor industry, some Japanese companies supplying equipment that makes and processes pure water are turning their gaze toward new opportunities in the fuel cell sector, for cooling household fuel cell systems, notes the Nikkei daily.

Organo Corp. is tweaking its pure-water maker, which uses a filtering system utilizing ion exchange resin, to be more durable and power-efficient, in hopes of selling the 10 sq. cm system to fuel cell producers within a year. Kurita Water Industries Ltd. has a similar tool with half the footprint, and is banking on success by touting its technology’s reliability (operating maintenance-free for 3-5 years), the paper notes.

Industries such as semiconductors, flat-panel displays, and electronic components make up the bulk of demand for pure-water system companies, the paper notes, so these two companies hope adding fuel-cell customers will help minimize demand fluctuations caused by the cyclical nature of those markets.

Materials analysis in a vacuum

Researchers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology have devised a way to use a laser microscope that can peer into the fabrication process of materials in a vacuum, eliminating the process of removing and analyzing the material under atmospheric conditions, according to the Nikkei Business Daily.

With conventional laser microscopes, materials being analyzed need to be tediously removed from the vacuum environment, analyzed, and then replaced. But working with Kitano Seiki Co. and Lasertec Corp., the researchers developed a laser microscope with a small module that attaches to the vacuum chamber, so the material can be moved in & out for scanning without changing the environmental conditions. The system, which can withstand temperatures up to 1000 degrees C, also can be used to introduce gases to analyze how sample material reacts when in a molten state, the paper noted.

Lasertec aims to start marketing the new microscope this summer for R&D applications, priced at around 15 million yen (US $123,000).

Greasing the wheels for nanolitho

Eintesla Inc., working with the U. of Hyogo, is targeting a key phase of the nanoimprint lithography process with a technique that applies a thin, even coating of lubricant to help devicemakers more easily remove litho templates from the mold resin, reports the Nikkei Business Daily.

In nanolithography, the pattern template is pressed into a resin coated on a substrate; a lubricant on the template helps pull it off once the pattern is transferred, but must not be applied too thickly or unevenly and no trace can be left on the patterned resin. Eintesla’s technique involves dipping the template in a bath of the lubricant (which was specially developed and optimized by a chemical unit of Daikin Industries Ltd.) and gently pulling it out at a steady rate of 500 microns/sec. The result is a smooth, even coating of layers as thin as 5nm on the substrate, notes the paper.

Eintesla plans to market the device for just under 1 million yen (about US $7800), initially targeting R&D work in academia and corporations, with a version targeting semiconductor production lines later this year.

Room-temp quantum dots

Tohoku U. scientists say they’ve developed a way to fabricate quantum dots for single-electron transistors, which they say can be easily combined with existing chip manufacturing processes with no special technologies, notes the Nikkei Business Daily.

Quantum dots are single-electron devices that at room temperatures can control passage of electrons in a 5nm space or smaller, too fine for existing microfabrication techniques, and other methods involving nanotubes or self-assembly can’t precisely control where the dot gets placed. The new technique fabricates an aluminum electrode as a thin film on SiO2, with a device structure (3-micron linewidth) defined using conventional semiconductor photolithography processes. Then an oxide layer is placed over the aluminum electrode and holes are drilled down into the aluminum, and the surrounding aluminum oxidizes above islands of aluminum (i.e., the quantum dots) that are only 1-2nm in size.

The group says it has prototyped a basic structure and confirmed its ability to perform fundamental operations of a single-electron transistor at room temperature, the paper noted. Within two or three years they hope to be able to make single-electron transistors that can function in real circuits.

Raytex, Oki expanding biz areas

Raytex Corp. is beefing up its wafer inspection business by acquiring Mitsui Mining and Smelting Co.’s silicon wafer testing unit, a deal estimated to be in the tens of millions of yen (a few US $100k), according to the Nikkei Business Daily. The deal gives Raytex a tool that checks for air bubbles inside silicon wafers, and also paves the way for development of a device to examine wafer surface using ultraviolet rays, the paper notes.

Raytex also plans to sell a “pinhole” inspection tool it’s developed with an unnamed “major silicon wafer maker,” which checks defects by infrarays shown down from above. An image-capturing device catches rays that pass through and looks for anomalies. Product delays have hurt the bottom line, though, as the company projects group pretax profit will be down 31% in the just-finished fiscal year.

Meanwhile, Oki Electric says it will hike output of LCD drivers used in high-definition TV sets by 50% to 15 million units this summer, in a move to capture demand for the high-growth niche and improve profitability amid stiff competition for chips in general, notes the Nikkei daily.

The company also will spend about 1 billion yen (US $8.2 million) to acquire more assembly and test equipment for its backend site in Thailand, its main assembly facility, which ships out 35 million units/month, including LCD drivers, the paper noted.


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