The company’s advanced capability would put it ahead of its American and European competitors, but analysts warn that it could also lead to more US sanctions.
China’s top chip maker has likely gained the ability to produce 7-nanometre chips, according to a Canadian tech analysis firm, marking a significant breakthrough as the world’s second-largest economy pushes towards technological self-sufficiency to counter US sanctions.
Researchers at TechInsights made the conclusion after they reverse-engineered a sample chip made by Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp (SMIC), extracted from a cryptocurrency mining machine.
Analysts and industry professionals believe it is technically possible for SMIC to produce 7nm chips with existing deep ultraviolet (DUV) systems, under the leadership of co-CEO Liang Mong Song, a chip-making expert who was previously an executive at industry-leading Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.
Liang wrote that he had led a 2,000-person engineering team to complete the development of 7nm technology at SMIC in a widely circulated resignation letter he later withdrew. He stated that the business might begin pilot production in April 2021.
Even though the type of chip TechInsights examined has been in production since last July, SMIC has not publicly addressed the possibility that it has achieved 7nm capability.
Regarding the TechInsights report, SMIC declined to comment.
While SMIC’s enhanced capacity might represent a technological turning point for the Shanghai-based business, some industry professionals are sceptical about the practicality of producing 7nm chips using less sophisticated DUV systems, which are employed in a variety of chip-making procedures.
According to Woz Ahmed, managing director of consultancy Chilli Ventures and former chief strategy officer at British semiconductor and software design giant Imagination Technologies, “theoretically, I believe DUV’s [chip production] limit is 7nm, but the yield and performance may not be great at that limit.”
The majority of market participants use extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUV) systems to create 7nm or more sophisticated chips.
Furthermore, Ahmed noted that it may not be useful to contrast SMIC’s chips with those made by competitors because the transistor density, power, and speed characteristics of 7nm chips produced by various manufacturers can vary greatly.
The findings come as the US government keeps pushing Dutch officials to further stifle sales to SMIC because ASML is a significant supplier of semiconductor equipment there.
SMIC, which was added to a list of US entities in December 2020, is already prohibited from importing machinery for producing chips smaller than 10 nm, including the most recent EUV machines.
The Chinese company is focusing on using established 28nm and above technologies to produce chips for cars and home appliances rather than high-end smartphones and tablets, which have shifted to more sophisticated chips, and relies on less sophisticated DUV systems from ASML to expand its capabilities.
A record-breaking $5.44 billion in revenue was generated by SMIC last year thanks to strong demand for its mature node capacity.
According to Arisa Liu, a senior semiconductor research fellow at the Taiwan Institute of Economic Research, the news that SMIC may have achieved 7nm capability could be enough to “trigger more US restrictions to tame the rise of China’s semiconductor industry.”
There were few specifics regarding the development of SMIC’s 7nm process prior to the TechInsights report. SMIC’s financial reports, which insisted that the company’s most cutting-edge technology is 14nm, did not mention the development.
Beijing is alarmed by Washington’s attempts to exclude China from global semiconductor value chains. Officials on the Chinese mainland have expressed their displeasure with the US-led Chip 4 Alliance, a supply chain alliance that also includes Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan.
SMIC would surpass its American and European competitors if it could mass produce 7nm chips, but the Chinese company is still one to two generations behind TSMC and Samsung Electronics of South Korea.
While TSMC is anticipated to catch up later this year, Samsung has already begun to produce chips using its 3nm process.