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The Increasing Demand for UHP Nitrogen and the SPECTRA Generator

The electronics-related industries are fast moving, with a relentless drive to lower costs and higher performance. One factor that has remained constant throughout this change is the need for high-purity nitrogen for use in almost all of the process steps involved in converting a blank silicon wafer into a set of sellable working semiconductor devices. As the scale of the wafer fabs where these devices are produced has grown from the small and medium sized 6-inch and 8-inch fabs seen in the 1980s and 1990s to the latest wave of 300mm mega fabs, so too have the volumes of nitrogen being used in a particular location.

Typical nitrogen demand at an 8-inch fab in the early 1990s was 3,000 Nm3/hr.  Contrast this with the volumes being consumed now in the latest 300mm fab lines being added to the major campuses of customers, which can now reach as much as 50,000 Nm3/hr or more.

This remarkable progression has been accompanied by a similar growth in the size of the N2 generator plants we have deployed at such fabs, with the capacity of Linde’s SPECTRA-N plant increasing from the 1,000 Nm3/hr size of the first of the series (installed in 1990 in Japan) to the current development of a 55,000 Nm3/hr unit for use in Taiwan.  Throughout this time we have built and installed almost 40 SPECTRA-N plants to serve the semiconductor and TFT-LCD industries. The total combined production capacity of these generators is close to 450,000 Nm3/hr of nitrogen.

The success of the SPECTRA-N is based on three critical factors, which fit closely with the characteristics of the electronics industry: low power consumption, cost-effective capital, and speed of deployment. Having the capability to lead in all three of these dimensions has enabled the SPECTRA-N to become an established benchmark standard for on-site nitrogen generators throughout the industry.

The largest sized plant for the past five years has been the SPECTRA-30000, which can deliver up to 36,000 Nm3/hr of N2 at ultra high purity levels (each impurity below 1ppb), while having the lowest relative power consumption of any such plant in the industry.  This plant has contributed a great deal to the recent successes achieved by our business teams in the U.S. and Asia. SPECTRA-30000 generators have been an integral part of recent major project wins in LCD-TFT fabs in China and new semiconductor wafer fabs in Taiwan and the U.S.

With the strong support of Linde Engineering, we are continuing to drive to ever larger plants to meet the requirements of the latest mega fabs in both semiconductor and TFT-LCD, including ensuring we are prepared for the anticipated jump in nitrogen demand that will come with the introduction of 450mm wafer processing in the next few years.  Linde Engineering has completed the design for the SPECTRA-50000 generator, capable of delivering up to 55,000 Nm3/hr of UHP N2. The first of these plants has been installed in Taiwan and will begin operations in 2015.

The SPECTRA-N generator has been a cornerstone of our success in the electronics market over the past 20 years and one place where this is especially noticeable is Hsinchu in Taiwan.  The first nitrogen plant installed by Linde (then as BOCLH) to serve these early fabs had a capacity of 4,500 Nm3/hr.

As more wafer fabs were built in the Park in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the demand for high purity N2 increased, and BOCLH successfully won contracts to supply the majority of these new fabs and began to install additional nitrogen generators. Deciding to focus on a centralized supply model with a pipeline network to customers was key in building the future success of our electronics gases business in Taiwan. Through the mid 1990s a further three new plants were added, each a SPECTRA-N 5000 generator. A second operating site was established when the first became full, and the pipeline network expanded into new areas of the Park.

This pipeline was designed as a loop and as it developed, it became a series of several interlocking loops which provided more than one pathway for gas to travel from the plants to an individual customer. This ensured a level of redundancy that could prevent a failure in one section from interrupting nitrogen supply. It also allowed the pressures to be balanced across the system to enable optimum power loading to be achieved on the growing network of generators.

By 1998, the total N2 demand in the Hsinchu Park had risen close to 30,000 Nm3/hr and was continuing to grow with more and larger fabs being added by key customers, and particularly the foundries. In order to match the scale of this continuing new fab investment, it was clear that a larger scale of plant was required. In the period from 1998 to 2001, a total of four of our then largest SPECTRA generator – the SPECTRA-N 10000 – were installed, trebling the Hsinchu N2 production capacity.

Following this period of rapid growth, the demand in Hsinchu slowed for a few years; at the same time, the advanced semiconductor production industry was getting started in mainland China with a number of fab projects being invested by Taiwan-related companies. BOCLH was able to make use of one of the earliest of the Hsinchu SPECTRA 5,000 plants by relocating this to Shanghai to capture one of these new fab opportunities there and establish a new operating site and small pipeline grid.

The next phase of Taiwan development took off in 2004, by which time the largest SPECTRA-N plant made was now 15,000 Nm3/hr.  Two of these were installed in Hsinchu taking the total N2 production capacity to above 100,000 Nm3/hr. By now, the primary manufacturers in the Hsinchu Park had begun investing in 300mm wafer fabrication plants, the throughput capacities of which were also growing, further adding to the rate of increase in N2 demand. To keep pace with this, and to take advantage of the lower unit production cost, the first SPECTRA-N 30,000 was installed in Hsinchu in 2007.

In the years since then, the N2 demand has continued to rise, driven largely by the huge amounts of investment made by major customers in adding further 300mm wafer fab capacity in the Park. A second SPECTRA-N 30,000 plant was added in 2011 and in 2014 the largest ever SPECTRA-N generator at 55,000 Nm3/hr was added.

When this begins operations in 2015, it will bring our total production capacity in the Hsinchu Park to 220,000 Nm3/hr of high purity nitrogen, with a total of 15 plants having been installed there in the 27 years of our development of this critical piece of infrastructure. This Hsinchu cluster represents about 10% of advanced global semiconductor manufacturing capacity and Linde is proud of the role that our SPECTRA-N plants have played in supporting its development.

This blog post was contributed by David Pilgrim. For more information, contact Francesca Brava: francesca.brava@linde.com.

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