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Trouble brews for chip makers as neon shortage looms

Delays in development of neon-free lasers means chip makers will continue to rely on older neon-enabled photolithography

by Marc S. Reisch
March 7, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 10

Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock
Neon shortages, created by rising semiconductor demand, could dim neon lighting production.
a neon sign spelling out the chemical symbol for neon.
Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock
Neon shortages, created by rising semiconductor demand, could dim neon lighting production.

A looming shortage of neon gas threatens to create problems for manufacturers of semiconductors and the devices they power beginning in 2017.

Producers of the latest computer and cell phone chips use a laser-enabled photolithography technique to create transistors and other device features. Deep ultraviolet lasers, which contain neon gas as a buffer, have made it possible to pack an increasing number of transistors on chips that now boast features as small as 14 nm wide.

Semiconductor makers had hoped to transition by this year to extreme ultraviolet lasers, which enable even smaller features but don’t require the noble gas. But delays in that technology mean the industry will continue to rely on neon-consuming lasers, “pushing up demand for neon beyond what the supply chain can support” by 2017, says Lita Shon-Roy, CEO of Techcet, a consulting firm that issued a report on the problem.

Chip makers, which account for more than 90% of global neon consumption, are already experiencing high prices and some shortages stemming from the Russian conflict with Ukraine, Shon-Roy says. The war, which started in 2014, interrupted global supplies of the gas, about 70% of which comes from Iceblick, a firm based in the Ukrainian city of Odessa.

Iceblick gathers and purifies neon from large cryogenic air separation units that supply oxygen and nitrogen to steelmakers. Most of the air separation units equipped to capture neon, which makes up only 18.2 ppm of the atmosphere by volume, are in Eastern Europe.

James Greer, president of PVD Products, a provider of pulsed laser deposition systems for academic research, says he expects the shortage to get worse. Greer’s customers are among the smaller users who also depend on neon.

The cost of a cylinder containing a mix of neon and other gases used in such systems has increased in the past two years from $1,200 to as much as $12,000, Greer says. Wait times for delivery have gone from four weeks to eight months.

Others who are likely to feel the effect of a neon shortage are ophthalmologists, who employ lasers for LASIK vision correction surgery; makers of superconducting wire; and manufacturers of neon lighting.



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