September 5, 2017 it was announced that Nearfield Instruments B.V. of Delft, the Netherlands has found two investors, enabling Nearfield Instruments to start the development of its first ultrafast High-Throughput Atomic Force Microscopy (HT-AFM) system for metrology of advanced IC’s. Samsung Venture Investment  Corporation and Innovation Industries, a Dutch investment fund for high-tech innovations in the Netherlands, together invest 10 million euro. Nearfield Instruments is a spin-off of the Netherlands Organisation for applied-scientific Research TNO. TNO will remain a shareholder in Nearfield Instruments.

Atomic scale dimensions

The world hungers for more powerful and lower power-consuming electronics for mobile devices and computer systems. To achieve new functionalities and to make optimum use of the available wafer space integrated circuit (IC) devices will shrink to atomic scale dimensions using novel, sensitive materials while at the same time being designed in a full three-dimensional configuration. In order to accommodate these trends in a technologically and economically viable way breakthroughs in metrology processes and equipment for IC device development and manufacturing are required. Without it, Moore’s Law would come to an end. Moore’s law is the observation that the number of transistors in a dense IC doubles approximately every two years.

Atomic Force Microscopy up to 1000x faster

Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM) is a well-known technology for imaging the smallest features and often applied in research. An AFM system uses an atomically-sharp probe to scan (but just not touch) the surface of the sample under investigation to sense the pattern on it. However, AFM was always considered too slow for industrial applications. Five years ago, TNO initiated the NOMI (Nano-Optomechatronics Instrumentation) program, in which scientific research is combined with application know-how, which has led to multiple improvements to this technology with the potential to make AFM up to 1000x faster than traditional AFM-technology. This makes Nearfield Instruments’ AFM-solution of prime interest for the semiconductor industry.

Dr. Hamed Sadeghian, principal scientist at TNO, scientific leader of NOMI and CTO of Nearfield Instruments: “This patented revolutionary architecture is based on parallelizing AFM. The parallelization is achieved by miniaturizing the AFM and operating many of them simultaneously. This instrument has the advantage that each miniaturized AFM can be operated independently that allows one to measure several physical parameters simultaneously; while one mini AFM measures nano-scale topography, another instrument can measure mechanical, electrical, or thermal properties, making it a lab-on-an-instrument. The key to this was to miniaturize AFM to size of a match box to allow achieving very high measurement bandwidth, while achieving very high stability of nanoimaging by shortening the metrology loop.

TNO spin-off

To accelerate market introduction of this High-Throughput AFM, in 2016 TNO launched the spin-off company Nearfield Instruments B.V. in Delft, the Netherlands. Within the next few years, Nearfield Instruments will develop HT-AFM to a viable product for the semiconductor market. CEO of Nearfield Instruments Dr. Roland van Vliet comments: “The support and commitment of our new partners Samsung Venture Investment  Corporation and Innovation Industries provides us all at Nearfield Instruments with the right expertise and momentum to realize atom-scale metrology at industry-level throughput. Together we’ll enable the semiconductor industry in its continuous strive towards even more powerful and lower power-consuming electronics.”