By Jeff Dorsch, Contributing Editor
That neon gas shortage? So 2015.
The supply issue continues, as armed conflict heats up in eastern Ukraine, site of a plant that supplies a majority of the neon gas used in the world. Cymer and Gigaphoton, the big suppliers of excimer lasers for lithography that use neon as a buffer gas, have worked around the shortage, including the recycling of gas exhaust from their lasers.
“Prices have somewhat stabilized,” said Joe Ganeshan, sales manager for Gigaphoton USA. “We’re still in a crisis.”
Pricing for neon gas last year rose by 10 to 20 times, according to Ted Cacouris, product marketing director at the Cymer subsidiary of ASML Holding. One gas supplier in Ukraine was behind more than half of the world’s supply, and transporting the gas out of the conflict zone became haphazard, he noted.
The spike in neon gas prices peaked in 2015’s late summer and early fall, Cacouris said. As semiconductor manufacturers adjusted to the shortage, “prices started rolling over,” he added.
Cymer and Gigaphoton both implemented recycling programs in response to the supply situation, dramatically reducing neon gas consumption for their customers. Ganeshan estimated his company’s customers saved around $90 million a year as a result, while Cacouris put the figure at about $200 million.
In addition to reducing neon-gas consumption, Gigaphoton is moving to eliminate the use of helium in chipmaking, citing the U.S. government’s plans to cut off supply of the unrenewable gas in the near future. Used as a purging gas in argon fluoride 193i immersion lithography scanners, helium will be replaced with nitrogen, Ganeshan said.
Putting the neon-gas crisis in the rearview mirror, Cymer and Gigaphoton are turning to other pressing issues as suppliers of the light sources used in immersion and extreme-ultraviolet lithography systems.
Gigaphoton claimed to have improved its market share in excimer lasers for semiconductor manufacturing to 60 percent or more in 2015.
Cymer’s Cacouris cast doubt on that figure, without disclosing his company’s market share last year. Japan-based Gigaphoton greatly benefited from the exchange rate on the yen, gaining a 20 percent pricing advantage as a result, he asserted.
He described Gigaphoton’s claim as “a bit optimistic,” adding, “They’ve had some progress; they’ve had a few wins.” Cacouris vowed, “We’re going to do a lot better this year.”
Before the SPIE Advanced Lithography conference in San Jose, Calif., Gigaphoton announced that it is establishing new support bases in Dalian and Xiamen, China. The company also said it has received supplier awards from United Microelectronics and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing.