Moore's Law, which roughly states that chip performance doubles every 18 months while costs remain the same, continues its march in Texas. TexasInstruments (NYSE:TXN) recently announced a new manufacturing process to produce chips with feature sizes of 45 nanometers. TI expects that the process will move into production during 2008; it should help reduce costs by allowing the company to fit twice as many chips on each wafer.

Semiconductor manufacturers use lithography to "draw" complicated patterns on silicon wafers. The smaller those features get, the more circuits engineers can pack onto a single chip, boosting speed and computing power. But as the circuits' size shrinks, the lithography process must be modified to draw finer features -- which poses a host of problems for chip engineers.

To clear some of these hurdles, TI and others will introduce one modification at 45 nanometers that wasn't needed for the current leading-edge 65-nanometer devices: "immersion" lithography, in which water covers the surface of the wafer during the lithography process. It's a process many in the industry may soon have to adopt, for several key reasons.

Modern lithography tools use a laser to create their patterns. Drawing small features requires a laser with a short wavelength; its light can be focused to a smaller point, creating more finely detailed etchings than long-wavelength light. Modern lithography tools use a laser with a wavelength of 193 nanometers, which is just too large for the newest chip designs.

There's a suitable laser available with a wavelength of 157 nanometers, but an industrywide switch to this laser would be time-consuming and expensive. However, when light passes through water, its wavelength shortens. By covering the top of the wafer with water, TI can use its existing 193-nanometer lasers to print features with higher resolution than it could with the wafer in air.

Despite TI's success in developing a workable immersion lithography process, immersion introduces a whole series of complications. Although lithography-tool vendors like ASML (NASDAQ:ASML), Canon, and Nikon are working diligently to solve the problems, immersion lithography at 45 nanometers promises to be expensive. Twenty years ago, a lithography tool cost between $1 million and $3 million. But today, a 193-nanometer immersion tool can cost close to $40 million -- and a modern fabricator won't get by with just one.

Given the high costs of outfitting a modern fabrication facility, many semiconductor chip companies, like LSI Logic (NYSE:LSI), are outsourcing manufacturing and going "fabless." Others, like Cypress Semiconductor (NYSE:CY), are hopping off the Moore's Law bandwagon altogether, concentrating on applications that don't require the most advanced manufacturing processes.

Even with rising costs, big companies like Intel (NASDAQ:INTC), TI, Samsung, and others will have to keep pushing the limits of lithography. After 45 nanometers, the next step is 32 nanometers. Stay tuned!

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Fool contributor Dan Bloom owns shares of Cypress and Intel, but holds no financial position in any other companies mentioned. The Fool has a disclosure policy.