RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Has Nemo come to the rescue of the silicon chip industry?

Moore’s Law just might have been given an extension on its lifespan thanks to the work of researchers at IBM and JSR Micro who unveiled their “Nemo” process for chip production this week.

Working together in California, the two firms disclosed the ability to squeeze more printed circuits on chips. The development could mean that existing chip technology and the mega-expensive machines used to produce them might be usable for seven or more years.

I’m hardly an expert on chips, but I’ve read a great deal about this development during the week because the potential consequences – and benefits – are huge. If production procedures and hardware don’t have to be shifted to more expensive alternatives and chips can be made to handle more applications, then Moore’s Law will continue to apply. That means lower costs for chips – and the products that contain them.

Here’s an example of why chip costs are important: Rumors have been flying all week that Sony is going to delay release of its PlayStation 3 powered by IBM’s new “Cell” chip due in part to costs. Some stories have said the PlayStation 3 might cost – or have imbedded costs – as much as $900.

Moore’s Law has been the semiconductor bible for years, its primary contention as created by Gordon Moore of Intel that transistors in chips double every 18 to 24 months, thus making chips less expensive. But even at the microscopic level of nano technology, chips are nearing capacity.

That’s where IBM and JSR micro come in.

IBM’s and JSR Micro’s findings are especially important, as it is not just very expensive to implement, but because the industry is still facing serious challenges in making EUV a reality,” wrote Wolfgang Gruener in TG Daily from Tom’s Guide Publishing. “While Intel said in 2004 that it installed world’s first commercial (extreme ultraviolet) EUV lithography tool and set up an EUV mask pilot line – a milestone in producing smaller circuits with EUV – the technology especially appears to not only lack a stable and powerful EUV source.”

Michael Kanellos, writing for CNET News, said Nemo could save chip firms a lot of money.

“If the Nemo system ultimately goes commercial, the process could let the industry wring more life out of 193-nanometer lithography systems installed today,” he wrote. “Machines based on these standards – which can cost $15 million each and get delivered in customized tractor trailers – have been around for years. The name derives from the fact that the wavelength of the laser light measures 193 nanometers (a nanometer is a billionth of a meter.)

Nemo could be a big money maker for IBM, added Tim Beyers in The Motley Fool.

“Nemo is still very much a small, wet-behind-the-ears fish, which means there’s not likely to be an imminent change for equipment makers,” he said. “But if he’s groomed well and manages to make nice with Intel, AMD, and other chip manufacturers, he could become the Big Blue shark that fed on the equipment industry’s profits.”

Chips are produced through a process known as optical lithography, and the industry consensus has been that the technology had pretty much reached its limits with current technology. On Monday, IBM disclosed its breakthrough.

“Our goal is to push optical lithography as far as we can so the industry does not have to move to any expensive alternatives until absolutely necessary,” said Robert Allen, manager of lithography materials at IBM’s Almaden Research Center in a statement from IBM. “This result is the strongest evidence to date that the industry may have at least seven years of breathing room before any radical changes in chip-making techniques would be needed.”

If Nemo works, we just might pay less for future PlayStations, cell phones, laptops and all those other devices that now rely on chips for brains.