By Jeff Dorsch, Contributing Editor
The armed conflict in Ukraine, where most of the world’s supply of neon gas for semiconductor manufacturing and other industrial applications is produced, is leading lithography equipment vendors to offer ways to reduce use of neon, which is utilized as a buffer gas for argon fluoride and krypton fluoride gases employed in lasers for chip production.
While a shaky cease-fire has been observed in Ukraine since February, combat has restricted factory activity there in the past year.
The situation has escalated to a neon gas supply shortage, according to Joe Ganeshan, sales manager for Gigaphoton USA. “Seventy-five percent of production comes from Ukraine,” he said. “Prices are going up drastically.”
“Chipmakers are concerned about recent escalation of neon prices and supply continuity,” David Knowles, vice president and general manager of Cymer Light Source, said in a statement. “We have worked in close cooperation with our customers on an aggressive program to develop, qualify, and introduce improvements for the installed base of ArF and KrF light sources that enable significant reductions in neon consumption while ensuring system performance.”
Risto Puhakka, president of VLSI Research, agrees that the neon gas shortage represents “a critical situation” for the semiconductor industry, which is the world’s leading consumer of neon gas. The chip business is “a materials-heavy industry,” he says. Similar crises emerged in recent years with rare earths and helium, he notes.
“It’s part of this business,” Puhakka observes. “Some materials are quite exotic.”
Commodity supply issues naturally result in higher pricing, according to Puhakka. “When the price is right, they’ll find more of it,” he adds.
Puhakka speculates that “shrewd chipmakers” were cognizant of the neon supply issue as it unfolded. “They understand the risks in the supply chain,” he says. While supply chain management is a constant concern for semiconductor manufacturers, they still have to deal with supply shortages and rising prices. “At the end of the day, they don’t have a choice,” Puhakka concludes.
Gigaphoton made a move last November, offering its eTGM technology on a free-of-charge, limited basis for new and existing GT series ArF immersion lasers. Last month, Gigaphoton stepped up its efforts with what it called the Neon Gas Rescue Program. Among other measures, the company is helping customers qualify gas suppliers on an accelerated basis and pushing up implementation of its hTGM gas recycling technology to 2016.
Cymer last month said it is helping with qualifying gas suppliers, while providing software for its installed base of light sources to reduce neon consumption. The company is aiding customers through its OnPulse support program, which brought out a helium reduction kit earlier this year.