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Energetiq brings deep ultraviolet light to life

18 Feb 2009

A new technique for generating extreme high-brightness deep ultraviolet light sources could radically change research in the life sciences. Caryl Richards finds out more.

As the economic climate forces an ever tightening grip on the purse strings, it is uplifting to see moguls of the semiconductor industry such as Intel Capital acting against the current and investing in early stage companies across the globe. One lucky recipient is Energetiq Technology, a developer of high-brightness short-wavelength light sources, which has just raised an additional $3m (€2.3m) in its third round of financing, according to federal documents.

Energetiq will use this investment to develop its latest innovation, the laser-driven light source (LDLS), and push it into the life-sciences market. Publicized as the world's first source of broadband deep ultraviolet (DUV) light, the patented LDLS technology is said to offer a more cost-effective, reliable and higher brightness UV source compared with traditional alternatives such as arc and deuterium lamps. This not only opens potential in the manufacture of next-generation nanoscale chip devices but could lead to faster analysis of biological materials.

Staking its claim
Since its founding in 2004 in Woburn, Massachusetts, US, Energetiq has emerged as a key contender in the extreme ultraviolet light-source market. The company has grown thanks to the increasing demands of modern lithography and analysis techniques where current optical methods are limited by the relatively long wavelength of visible light compared with the size of the item being made or analysed.

Energetiq's key technology is electrodeless plasmas, in which very high intensity short-wavelength light is produced from high-temperature ionized gases. From here, the company has gone on to develop a range of short-wavelength products with the brightness and reliability required for applications at the nanoscale.

While the last few decades have seen radical changes take place in laser technology and solid-state lighting, the technology behind traditional UV lamps has remained almost untouched since its inception. Energetiq's aim is to revolutionize this situation by refocusing its expertise in plasma physics into the DUV. Its hope is that the LDLS will become the mainstay of UV light-based products just as LEDs are now commonplace in solid-state lighting.

What is a laser-driven light source?
Unlike laser technology, which emits monochromatic or very narrowband light, the LDLS emits more or less uniform broadband radiation down to 170 nm. "It's almost like a white light source but it goes way beyond the visible into the deep UV and up into the IR," Paul Blackborow, Energetiq's chief executive officer, told OLE. "It has a very flat spectrum, which is very unusual."

Developed from a proprietary laser-driven bulb technology, the LDLS circumvents the drawbacks associated with using electrode-driven plasmas. The LDLS uses a continuous-wave IR laser to directly heat plasma to the high temperatures necessary for efficient DUV production. These high temperatures are beyond the reach of electrodes without the risk of melting and seriously limiting their lifetime.

The plasma, which is primarily made up of xenon, is sealed in a quartz bulb, unlike excimer lasers that require the installation of toxic gases. A standard optical output interface lets the user select narrow bands of light for specific applications, such as photoresist testing at 193 or 248 nm.

Moving into the life sciences
The LDLS is available commercially as the Energetiq EQ-1000, a compact, user-friendly package that integrates easily into process tools and analytical instruments. While this has already had success with the research industry in a variety of applications, Blackborow sees the longer-term business in the development of highly customized lamps for specific instruments. "One of the primary drivers is this analytical instruments and life-science application, and that's part of the reason for raising the additional capital," he said.

This recent round of financing was led by a new investor, Ushio Inc, the world's largest high-technology light-source company, and supported by existing investors including Intel Capital and Shea Ventures.

"We're delighted to have Ushio as an investor in Energetiq," said Blackborow. "They can see the value in the new technology that we're developing. And of course, for us they are a good technical partner. They have tremendous experience in making light sources. Intel has been an investor in us for a few years now and is interested because enabling light sources really help in making smaller and smaller chips."

With the funds in place, Blackborow is keen to push the LDLS into the life sciences. "One of the things we want to do it is to make the LDLS very compact and affordable to all life-science customers," he said. "That will take us some development costs and that's why we took on this extra investment."

• This article originally appeared in the February 2009 issue of Optics & Laser Europe magazine.

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