Jain recognized in 50 years of laser history milestones


Brad Petersen, ECE ILLINOIS

Kanti Jain
Kanti Jain

Of all the inventions and innovations that have ever happened with the laser, ECE Professor Kanti Jain is responsible for one of the most important.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the laser’s first demonstration. To celebrate, the American Physical Society (APS), the Optical Society of America, SPIE, and IEEE Photonics Society have created LaserFest, a yearlong celebration of the laser and its evolution since 1960. Highlighting 50 years of innovations in lasers and laser applications, LaserFest also presents a timeline of laser history milestones.

Earlier this spring, the House of Representatives passed a resolution recognizing the anniversary, and President Barack Obama issued a statement.

“I commend the many American scientists and engineers whose ingenuity and contributions to laser science and technology have helped make the laser one of the most important and versatile inventions of the 20th century,” Obama wrote. 

Among the key milestones featured in the laser history timeline is the invention and demonstration of excimer laser lithography in 1982 by Jain, cited as “Kanti Jain publishes the first paper and gives the first talk on excimer laser lithography. Laser lithography is used extensively today to make microchips for the computer and electronics industry.” Jain developed the technology while working at the IBM San Jose Research Laboratory (now the IBM Almaden Research Center). Today, semiconductor electronic devices fabricated using laser lithography total $400 billion in annual production.

Jain received news of his contribution being featured in the milestones timeline rather routinely—via an email that APS sent to its members announcing the anniversary and launching of the LaserFest Web site.

“I just happened to notice that they had a 1982 milestone for lithography and there it was!” Jain said. “It was very exciting. Being on such a short list is an enormous delight and a great honor.”

He was aware of his own work, of course, but he was not aware he would be recognized in such a tremendous way.

Jain traces his interest in lasers and their applications back to his time studying at Illinois.

“As a graduate student at Illinois, I had become very familiar with a number of lasers,” Jain said. “Although I was not working on lasers, they were critical tools that I was using for my research in semiconductor physics.”

At IBM, he worked in microelectronics and the manufacturing technologies that were vital in their fabrication.

“I realized that the most critical technology in semiconductor manufacturing is lithography,” he said. “The lithography technology is what determines how fine you can make the transistors, how many transistors you can pack on a chip.”

Today, lithography is used to make all modern electronics and determines the state-of-the-art capability—the speed of processors, density in memory chips, and resolution in flat-panel displays, for example. Lithography is arguably the largest application of lasers.

When Jain wrote the paper nearly 30 years ago, he had a feeling that it might turn into something big.

“Usually when you do something that novel, you don’t have a good look into the future,” Jain said. “But if you’re familiar with what that industry is looking for, and you happen to be lucky to come up with a solution, then you can have a feeling that this might be very important. And I did have that feeling.”

That research in the early 1980s has affected nearly everything Jain has accomplished in his career. The chip lithography he worked on at IBM transitioned into flat-panel displays, which are the basis for his company, Anvik Corporation. And he and his students are still investigating new lithography technologies.

“That is a very significant event in all the work that I’ve done—definitely one of the two or three most significant,” Jain said. “It was a defining moment and has clearly brought me a lot of satisfaction, many rewards, and many subsequent opportunities to build upon that. It’s been a great ride.”

View the timeline of laser milestones at www.laserfest.org/lasers/history/timeline.cfm and www.stfc.ac.uk/Resources/PDF/Lasers50_final1.pdf.