Chips off a new block

How pure gases and new chemical compounds developed in the Linde Electronics Research Center make computers and smart phones more powerful.

As microchip designers and manufacturers compete to squeeze more transistors on semiconductors, they receive crucial support from industrial gases providers. To develop new products and reduce chemical variability in existing ones, Linde founded the Electronics Research and Development Center in Taiwan in 2016.

In this interview, Carl Jackson, Head of Electronics Technology and Innovation, and Analytical Chemist Hans Lin recount the progress since then and explain how they stay ahead of their clients’ highly dynamic demand.

Carl Jackson
Hans Lin

Question: Carl, Hans – chip makers are steadily decreasing the size of transistors to increase computing power. What role does the Electronics Research and Development Center (ERDC) play in this?

Hans Lin: The heart of the electronics industry beats in Asia, with around a quarter of all chips originating from fabrication facilities, so-called fabs, here in Taiwan. The ERDC collaborates with all leading-edge clients in the region including Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), Samsung and Intel to offer custom-tailored new products and state-of-the-art analytical tools. 

Carl Jackson: Leading semiconductor foundries, firms that make chips on demand, and integrated device manufacturers are working hard to shrink so-called process nodes from 10 to five and even to three nanometers in the coming years. The smaller these nodes, the spacing between different components on the chip, the more powerful the chip. To continue to improve electronic performance, chip designers and manufacturers are exploring materials beyond silicon. 

Question: Could you provide an example? 

Carl Jackson: Take tungsten hexafluoride, for instance, a gas used to make tungsten films, which establishes an electrical connection between different components in a chip. We have developed a process to replace the fluorine in this molecule with chlorine, creating a new process that allows for better integration of tungsten molecules. This is a small step to help our customers make computers yet more efficient.

Question: On a more general level, what role do gases play in the production of microchips? 

Carl Jackson: From the beginning, gas enabled processes with their unique properties have been a key method in the production of electronic devices. On a basic level, such devices are built from transistors, capacitors and diodes, all interconnected with conductors and separated by insulating layers. This requires accurate processes, and as complexity will likely increase in the future, higher purity materials as well as entirely new molecules may be needed. In both cases, the ERDC is an ideal partner.

Semiconductor microchip used in electronics with blurred led lights dotted around and beyond. Blue background.
Atmosphere matters: The gas environment is crucial in the production of computer chips
Rows of green/yellow and blue CHF3 trifluoromethane cylinders with several other specialty gas cylinders seen in distance. Large cylinder warehouse at LLH Taichung, Taiwan. Electronic specialty gases.
To support clients in the electronics industry, Linde’s research center in Taiwan is developing specialty gases well before clients realize their demand.

Question: Hans, you are an analytical chemist at the Research and Development Center. What exactly does your role involve? 

Hans Lin: In general, I develop analytical and sampling methods for electronic specialty gases (ESGs). But I’m also the go-to technical expert when it comes to impurities. And finally, I assess the qualifications of new raw material suppliers. 

QuestionAnd how does all this impact the end result? 

Hans Lin: We are currently developing a method to measure low levels of metal impurities in gases, for example. Using various techniques, we can provide an unprecedented level of accuracy. Eventually, this work – like everything else at the Center – is designed to strengthen innovation through collaboration with customers. 

Question: You clearly have a passion for what you do, Hans – what is it you love about this job?

Hans Lin: The Center handles a constant stream of challenges and new projects. This is something I enjoy as much as the brainstorming with colleagues. Running laboratories such as ours is a demanding – and costly – effort; Linde is the first global gas supplier to invest in research and development capabilities in this region. And it pays off. Somebody somewhere at the Center always has an idea and we have the resources to make it happen.

Question: And Carl, what are the operational and strategic challenges the Center is currently faced with? 

Carl Jackson: On an operational level, one of the main challenges is that we handle a broad range of materials with challenging physical properties. Some are highly toxic or corrosive and we often process multiple materials at the same time. This requires significant gas handling expertise by our team. On a strategic level, we need to ensure we are developing products that our customers will need in roughly two to three years. We do not have unlimited resources and budgets, so selecting and prioritizing projects in close cooperation with customers is crucial. 

Question: Shortly after it was founded, the Center entered into a research partnership with the Industry Technology Research Institute (ITRI). What are the results from this cooperation?

Carl Jackson: We have multiple projects with our partners at ITRI, mainly focused on developing advanced analytical methods. The cooperation works for both. Sometimes, we provide a service to ITRI in areas where we have better capabilities, for example, in analysing corrosive or toxic gases. Where their capabilities exceed ours, we conduct some of our work at ITRI. 

Question: How do you ensure the Center’s research remains cutting edge? 

Carl Jackson: There are two key points to that. ERDC has a powerful customer application team whose members work closely with customers to understand their needs, ideally before they even know they have them. Second, we have highly skilled researchers as well as state of the art equipment to execute our development projects as efficiently as possible.