Trends in Vacuum Process Technology

At the beginning of the 20th century, the use of vacuum as an industrial process technology was just emerging, driven by the invention of the electric light. The introduction of the radio and television, both of which depended on vacuum tubes, helped expand that demand. Then, in the 1950s and 60s, the growing use of solid state transistors led many industry pundits to predict the imminent demise of vacuum processing — especially in the electronics industry. As we near the end of the first decade of the 21st century, however, vacuum process technology is alive and well, and solid state electronics has become the technology’s biggest driver.

Today, the market for vacuum components (as opposed to vacuum systems that use those components) is approaching $6 billion (based on ISVT 2007 [1] figures and Edwards’ internal sources) and has been growing steadily. Pumping and pumping services comprise about two-thirds of the market, with semiconductor fabrication being the largest single sector. Approximately half of the current demand for vacuum components comes, not surprisingly, from Asia.

Key applications driving process technology

More than 70 general industrial applications use vacuum processing, with new ones emerging on a regular basis. These, in turn, can be broken down into hundreds of specific applications, which can have very different requirements. Specifically, electronics, flat-panel displays, solar manufacturing, and scientific instrumentation are likely to drive developments in vacuum technology in the coming years.

Semiconductors. Decreasing device sizes and the increasing wafer size have fueled fab vacuum requirements through the need for higher gas throughput and the increasing variety of precursors and process by-products. This phenomenon will likely continue to drive increasing demand for process vacuum and bigger pumps. In addition, the introduction of new materials into semiconductor processes — the so-called "walk along the periodic table" — as well as new physical processes, such as atomic layer deposition(ALD), have introduced new pumping challenges that will continue to need addressing.

(This article is excerted from SolidState College, Authored by Stephen Ormrod and Nigel Schofield, Edwards.