Years ago, the semiconductor industry used visible light to etch the circuitry onto silicon chips. Then the patterns got so small, they had to start using ultraviolet light — a shorter wavelength to make smaller features.

Now they’re talking about using soft X-rays known as extreme ultraviolet (EUV) , a shorter wavelength than ultraviolet in the electromagnetic spectrum. And that means it’ll take the X-ray management magic of an Auburn Hills company to do the job.

John C. McGill, president and CEO of Rigaku Innovative Technologies Inc., said the firm is now staffing up for its move into the semiconductor industry. The jobs will require advanced degrees in physics and experience in instrument design and high-tech deposition of coatings.

Rigaku was established in 1985 as Osmic Inc., an offshoot of Energy Conversion Devices Inc. and its inventor-genius-physicist founder, Stanford Ovshinsky.

“It was a research company studying a lot of things,” McGill said. “It took them five or six years to zero in on one area, X-ray optics, which changed the company from R&D to profitable.”

McGill joined the company in 1997 as vice president of research and development from Northville’s Optical Imaging Systems Inc., a manufacturer of rugged flat panel displays for the military. The company went up for sale in 2000, and was purchased by one of its largest customers, Rigaku Corp., a Tokyo-based manufacturer and distributor of scientific, analytical and industrial instrumentation.

Rigaku uses a variety of high-tech processes to create very precise mirrors that chemically resemble artificial crystals. They involve the precise deposition of alternating layers of silicon and other elements — most typically molybdenum or copper — on a silicon substrate. The layers are literally only a few atoms thick, yet have very precise edges.

The Auburn Hills division is called Rigaku Innovative Technologies Inc. and employs 50 people. The company also has offices in Tucson, Ariz., where X-ray detectors are made, and Salem, N.H., where equipment to spin laboratory targets to generate X-rays are made.

About two-thirds of the Auburn Hills plant’s production goes into the X-ray analytical instruments built by Rigaku in Japan; the rest goes to Rigaku competitors. The instruments are used in a wide variety of applications, from measuring the thickness of plating to studying ore samples to drug discovery in the pharma industry.

“What we do here uniquely is we design and manufacture the optical components that are used in these analytical instruments,” McGill said. “We know how to deposit these incredibly thin and precise optical layers and we provide it to our parent company and other companies out there.”

That market is currently not growing. But McGill said the growth potential of the semiconductor industry is immense.

“In printing semiconductor chips, in order to get chips that use less power and pack more features on the chips, they have to make those features smaller and smaller,” McGill said. “To print the small features you use a projection system, and ultraviolet light, small wavelength. Back when I was in school it was visible light. They now want to go way beyond that, to a much smaller wavelength. But the problem is, they find that all of the optics in the projectors they use now absorb all that light. So the semiconductor industry is looking for mirrors that reflect this very short wavelength light.”

And that’s precisely what Rigaku makes in Auburn Hills.

“We’re now working with manufacturers of projectors, and we will be delivering first prototype optics early next year,” McGill said. “The goal is to succeed in those prototypes and get a production contract with the semiconductor industry.”

McGill said the circuits now being printed are only a few hundred atoms thick, and the industry is working toward an eventual goal of circuits only a few tens of atoms thick.

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