IEDM 2017 + ISSCC 2018: Intel’s 10nm, switching to cobalt interconnects


Intel 10nm process consists of a 13-layer metallization stack.

Intel 10nm Metallization Stack
Layer Pitch TEM
M0 40 nm TEM of the metal stack. Note that the upper-most layer is the TM0 (TM1 and bumps are not shown).
(Intel, IEDM 2017)
M1 36 nm
M2 44 nm
M3 44 nm
M4 44 nm
M5 52 nm
M6 84 nm
M7 112 nm
M8 112 nm
M9 160 nm
M10 160 nm
TM0 1,080 nm
TM1 11 μm

For the critical dimensions which is 34 nm fins and the two metal layers, Intel uses quad patterning which adds four steps to the flow – deposition on the spacers followed by the etching steps. Metals 2 through 5 as well as the gate patterning get away with just double patterning.

Going Cobalt

As you shrink the transistor geometry you need to shrink the wires as well for the chip to benefit from the higher density. Scaling the wires has been an increasingly complicated task. While the solutions are incredibly complex, the fundamental problem is simple – the longer and narrower the wires get, the higher the electrical resistance is.

WikiChip’s wire resistance diagram

Using the incredibly over-simplified interconnect structure above for RC analysis, the resistance of the wire can be described as R = ρ ⋅ [L / (W ⋅ H)] where ρ is electrical resistivity of the interconnect, L is the length of the wire, and (W * H) is the cross-sectional area.

Exactly 20 years ago, at IEDM 1997, Daniel Edelstein, an IBM Fellow, presented their paper announcing their plan to insert a Cu BEOL technology into production. IBM ramped up their 180nm process (CMOS-8S3) in 1998 which was later used for the POWER4 chips. At the 180nm process IBM replaced the Aluminum interconnect with copper for its significantly lower resistivity, higher scalability, and higher current density capabilities.

Selected key IBM milestones implemented in Cu BEOL manufacturing.
Included are several achieved first by other companies (*), and two which were suspended (#).
(Source: IBM, IEDM 2017)

20 years and 10 technology nodes later, we’re finally see copper running out of steam. At IEDM Intel made a surprise announcement with 10nm using cobalt interconnect for the first time in high-volume manufacturing. There’s just one interesting fact: cobalt doesn’t actually have lower resistivity compared to copper.

Resistivity and Mean Free Time/Path (at room temp)
Element ρ (µΩ·cm) τ (fs) λ (nm)
Copper 1.678 36 39.9
Aluminum 2.65 11.8 18.9
Tungsten 5.28 16 15.5
Cobalt 6.2 21.2/17.6 11.8/7.77

Reference: Gall, Daniel. “Electron mean free path in elemental metals.” Journal of Applied Physics 119.8 (2016): 085101.
Note that since bulk Cobalt is hexagonal, there are two values depending on the transport (perpendicular and parallel axis).

From the table above it can be seen that copper has considerably lower resistivity than aluminum, tungsten, and cobalt. So why switch? Electromigration. The high-speed electrons that flow through the wire occasionally bump into the copper ions causing a momentum transfer, gradually skewing them in a certain direction. Using a pipe analogy, the metal density at one end decreases and piles up on the other end. The decreased density, or void, affects the reliability of the integrated circuit which eventually results in a failure due to the increased resistance.

To mitigate the problem and protect the wires, manufacturers introduced diffusion barriers and liners using other materials such as silicon/tantalum nitride and oxynitride. The barrier is used to to prevent metal diffusion into the dielectric while the liner is used as “glue” for the barrier and the copper. Once those are in place, the copper seed layer (metal plating) and then the bulk copper is added.

WikiChip’s simplified diagram of the interconnect.

This worked nicely, but there is a problem. As interconnect continued to shrink, the thickness of the high-resistivity liner/barrier for the copper interconnects stayed more or less the same. This is largely due to the difficulty in thinning it any further than the few nanometers it already is. This means that as the wires scale, the barrier itself takes up a larger and larger portion of the interconnect cross-sectional area. With the high-resistivity barriers slowly making up a larger portion of interconnect, it begins to dominate the resistivity of the wire itself.

WikiChip’s diagram of Copper interconnect scaling

This isn’t the only issue affecting the wire scaling. The mean free path is the average distance the electron travels between collisions. Since the mean free path λ for copper is almost 40nm, then as the copper interconnect approach λ or 40nm, the copper electrons will begin to scatter far more often from the various surfaces and grain boundaries because they are so area-constrained. This excess scattering increases the resistivity of copper.

Mean Free Path

So while the transistor performance has been improving, the copper wire resistance has actually been increasing as the wire got smaller. This means that the signal slows down, distance traveled decreases, and we’re consuming more power than desired. In other words, despite having higher performance transistors, there is a growing disparity between the transistor capabilities and the wire capabilities. The copper wires have become a serious bottleneck.

Cobalt on the other hand has higher resistivity, but its electron mean free path is considerably lower – in fact it’s 1/4 the average distance, down to single-digit nanometer. Additionally, in contrast to copper, it has been demonstrated that a single film, as thin as 1 nm, is sufficient to serve as both the liner and barrier for cobalt. This creates a new scaling path forward for cobalt interconnect. While there are a couple of other factors that determine the final resistance of the wire, it looks as though Intel has managed to hit the Copper-Cobalt Crossover point whereby cobalt results in a performance win over copper. We suspect foundries will follow Intel as they scale their interconnects in future nodes.

It’s worth noting that cobalt isn’t used for everything. It’s only used for the first two metal layers (i.e., M0 and M1) where you have your local interconnect that have very narrow pitches (e.g., 36nm) and where cobalt does benefit them. Intel claims this provides a 2x reduction in via resistance as well as 5-10x improvement in electromigration in those layers. For the global routing and the large power rails which are longer distance and much thicker, it makes sense to continue to use copper. With future nodes, as additional upper metal layers shrink below the Copper-Cobalt crossover point, we’ll start to see cobalt climbing up the stack.

In addition to interconnect, Intel is also using cobalt for the Metal 2 through Metal 5 cladding layer to also improve electromigration. Low-κ carbon doped oxide (CDO) dielectrics are used on eleven layers out of the thirteen. This is the same Low-κ that was used for the 14 nm process. Finally, Intel also introduced cobalt fill at the trench contact, replacing the tungsten contact metal which was used previously (note that tungsten is continued to be used for the gate) due to the narrow line widths, reducing resistance.

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David SchorJames LMaynard Handley Recent comment authors
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Maynard Handley
Maynard Handley

Nice article as usual, David, But might I suggest that in most places you replace “resistivity” with “resistance”?

The issue is not “resistivity” per se, no?
The issue is that what matters is the resistance of “wires as manufactured”. This resistance is a composite of bulk resistivity, surface effects, and the effective area that can be dedicated to the wire given manufacturing realities. Use of cobalt lowers the resistance because even though the bulk resistivity goes up, the other factors in that composite go down — the surface effects and the reduced effective area.

James L
James L

“The issue is not “resistivity” per se, no?” The issue is both resistance and resistivity though. Resistivity is an intrinsic property which is meant to describe the natural resistance to the flow in unconstrained space. But as you scale, you are no longer in unconstrained space and the increased surface scattering is said to affect the resistivity of the material. I can’t speak for the author but as someone who discussed the subject with engineers in the past, often when they refer to the resistivity of the wire, it is a simple way of referring to the resistivty of the… Read more »