Vacuum Technique’s history

In vacuum technology, the Atlas Copco Group is standing on the shoulders of two vacuum industry giants that it acquired in the last decade – Edwards and Leybold – who each came with completely game-changing innovations going back over a century. The Group is now ushering in a new era with the recycling of rare earth materials.

Text by the Centre for Business History in Stockholm

A coating system

The first vacuum air pump was invented in 1649 but it would take some 250 years until the potential of this technology could be realized.

After some legacy work on vacuum pumps in the past, the Atlas Copco Group became a global vacuum leader in the last decade through key acquisitions. These included UK-based Edwards (founded in 1919) in 2014 and Germany-based Leybold (founded in 1850) in 2016, leading to the establishment of the Vacuum Technique business area in 2017. The Group’s heritage in vacuum technology is thus largely composed of the history of these two pioneers and market leaders.

Chris Bailey, Vice President Emerging Technologies at the Semiconductor Division, joined Edwards in 1990. He has been in the business long enough to have personally witnessed and driven major transformations in vacuum technology. 

“At Edwards, we completely revolutionized the semiconductor industry with the introduction of the dry pump,” says Chris. “Now, together with our colleagues in the Atlas Copco Group, we are leading another paradigm shift in vacuum technology – the era of recycling and recovery.”

How vacuum pumps took off in the 1900s

The first vacuum air pump was invented in 1649 by Otto von Guericke, but it would take about 250 years until the potential of this technology could be realized. At the turn of the 1900s, as light bulbs were invented and became more widespread, vacuum pumps had a key role to play and Leybold offered one of the first air pumps in 1899. 

Leybold’s Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Gaede was a pioneer of modern vacuum technology, personally holding nearly 40 vacuum-related patents in Germany. Gaede worked with Leybold from 1906 until his death in 1945, introducing the first molecular air pump in 1909, followed by the basic principle of the turbomolecular pump in 1911 and the diffusion pump in 1915. Products based on these principles are still widely used to this day.

These early-1900s vacuum innovations paved the way for continuing technological progress by Leybold in Germany, by Edwards in the UK, and by Atlas Copco itself. Atlas Copco used certain synergies with its core compressor business to launch a couple of lines of vacuum pumps already in the 1960s.

Dry pump invention drives semiconductor growth

Henry Wycliffe joined Edwards in 1953 and had already begun working on an idea for a dry vacuum pump by the 1960s, despite being told not to waste his time because no one would buy it. One day, a colleague spotted a prototype in the lab and said that a customer would like it. The rest is history. By 1984, Wycliffe’s work finally culminated in the patenting of the now legendary dry vacuum pump.

Wycliffe could not have foreseen how important his invention would turn out to be as the explosion of the semiconductor industry exponentially increased the dry pump’s viability and demand. One of the reasons the dry pump was revolutionary is because it extended service life from only about three months for a wet pump to several years with a dry pump. It also cut the required servicing frequency from weekly to quarterly.

“For the last 30 years,” says Chris, “we’ve continued to introduce gamechanger after gamechanger, continuing the tradition of Henry Wycliffe’s dry pump. I’m proud to have personally been a part of these historical developments collaborating with many talented people as we followed in the footsteps of visionaries like Henry.”

The Edwards innovations during Chris’ time included the first network-distributed control system for vacuum pumps in 1994. This was followed by the first prototype of an integrated vacuum and abatement system in 1999, which was then brought to market as Zenith around the turn of the century. Edwards also introduced a reactive gas injection system in 2005. Both of the latter are still a major part of the portfolio today, including the next generation eZenith launched in 2010 and an integrated system for extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUV).  

A new era of recycling rare and valuable materials

The semiconductor industry is today using astronomically more hydrogen than before, and also increasing its use of noble gases and precious metals. The challenge here is that many of these materials are extremely scarce, toxic, and energy-intensive to extract. On top of that, the deposition process may be only 3% effective, meaning that 97% could go to waste and end up dumped into water supplies. All of this translates to enormously high costs and environmental hazards.

Now imagine how recovering about 90% of these materials would completely change the equation. An obvious solution in theory, of course, but in practice it must be done with great care and precision to avoid damaging EUV machines worth millions of dollars. This has prompted industry cautiousness – until recently, that is. With energy and environmental considerations taking on much greater importance from 2022, the market is getting over its inhibitions and the Atlas Copco Group, under the Edwards brand, had an ace up its sleeve to help them with this transition.

“We had the foresight to start working on this type of groundbreaking solution a decade before the market matured,” says Chris. “Now recycling and recovery systems are seen as crucial means of bringing down the CO2 equivalent of semiconductor facilities. The 5th of September 2022 will go down in history as the first time that materials were successfully recovered in the semiconductor industry by us in a live production environment. This is no longer nice to have but an absolute necessity going forward, and I’m proud that we are leading the way.”