SAN JOSE, Calif. -- At one time, nano-imprint was supposed to be the next big thing in next-generation lithography.
Nano-imprint lithography has made solid progress over the years, but for the most part, the technology remains stuck in its R&D niche. While nano-imprint has not cracked mainstream production in semiconductor fabs, as some had hoped at one time, the technology has been delayed in perhaps its biggest potential market: hard disk drives (HDDs).
Today, drive makers use sputtering techniques to enable magnetic media on today's HDDs, but these products are fast running into the 1-terabyte capacity wall. By this year or so, drive makers were supposed to produce HDDs based on a next-generation technology called bit-patterned media--a move that could extend conventional storage to 10-terabyte capacities.
Each magnetic bit is physically patterned onto the disk in bit-patterned media. To enable this technology, drive makers are looking to make a major and nerve wracking transition from sputtering to nano-imprint lithography on the production floor. This represents the first time that drive makers would bring lithography in production.
But the hard disk makers have reportedly delayed the transition, due to some unforeseen issues with template production and other reasons. The shift towards bit-patterned media--and nano-imprint--is ''a few years later than what we thought,'' said Thomas Albrecht, manager of patterned media at the San Jose Research Center for Hitachi Global Storage Technologies Inc., a disk driver maker.
In an interview with EE Times after a presentation at the SPIE Advanced Lithograpy conference, Albrecht said it could take ''four to five years'' before bit-patterned media makes it in mass or mainstream production.
The various drive makers have separate schedules when bit-patterned media will into production, causing some angst and jitters for nano-imprint vendors, many of which were banking on the technology as an engine for growth. Nano-imprint vendors, including Nanonex, Molecular Imprints (MII), Obducat and others, have sold tools into the drive houses and are anxiously waiting for the technology to move into production.
Some say the shift from sputtering to nano-imprint for advanced disk drive production could take up to five years. Others say the transition will happen sooner than later, possibly 2011 or 2012.
The delay for nano-imprint among disk drive makers is ''across the board,'' said Stephen Chou, a professor at Princeton University and founder and chairman of nano-imprint pioneer Nanonex Corp. (Princeton, N.J.).
''The hard drive makers have put a lot of money into bit-patterned media,'' Chou said. ''But right now, they don't have an exact date when'' bit-patterned media (and nano-imprint lithography) will go into production.
Mark Melliar-Smith, CEO of MII (Austin, Texas), believes nano-imprint will move into production at the drive houses long before 2014 or 2015. Right now, nano-imprint is ''moving from development into pilot lines,'' Melliar-Smith said at the SPIE event.
The disk drive makers ''have bought some'' nano-imprint tools, said G. Dan Hutcheson, CEO of market research firm VLSI Technology Inc., but ''they are still not in production.''