China is eager to be self-sufficient when it comes to chipset production. But it has had a problem because the US has tried to prevent it. China’s largest foundry, Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation (SMIC), was only able to produce chips with its 14nm process node compared to the 5nm process node used by leading foundries TSMC and Samsung (and both will ship 3nm chips later this year). ).
Despite US sanctions, SMIC begins work to reduce lead over process nodes TSMC and Samsung have
This is important because the lower the process node, the greater the number of transistors that can fit in a chip. And the more transistors there are in a chip, the more powerful and energy-efficient the chip is. With 15 billion transistors in Apple’s A15 Bionic, you have to wonder how such components can be designed. The answer is a machine manufactured by the Dutch company ASML, the extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography machine.
Even without a $150 million EUV machine like the one in this photo, SMIC can operate on the 7nm process node
The EUV machine etches circuit designs on a wafer that are a fraction of the thickness of a human hair. The machine has been credited with keeping Moore’s law alive; such is Intel co-founder Gordon Moore’s observation that the number of transistors in chips would initially double each year. When Moore revised his “Law” in the 1970s, he changed the time frame to “every two years.”
In 2020, a change to the export rule by the US Department of Commerce blocked foundries around the world from sending advanced chips to China’s Huawei if those foundries produce chips using US technology. As a result, Huawei has been forced to use Qualcomm’s current Snapdragon chips that have been modified to only use 4G speeds, preventing Huawei from producing 5G-compatible phones.
The US has also taken steps in the past to prevent SMIC from getting EUV machines from ASML to prevent China from producing advanced chips. But when we last watched SMIC last September
it announced it was spending billions building new fabs and planned to go after TSMC in the 28nm segment used for Wi-Fi chips and other integrated circuits.
SMIC may have copied TSMC’s technology to build its 7nm SoC.
More interestingly, SMIC said it had developed a node called N+1 that could compete with 7nm chips. And all this was accomplished without an EUV machine. Now called a firm TechInsights
(through Tom’s hardware
) says it has discovered that SMIC has used its 7nm process node to build a Bitcoin Miner SoC. After reverse engineering the chip, TechInsights said, “The initial images suggest it is a close copy of the TSMC 7nm process technology.”
TSMC has sued SMIC twice for copying its technology
This may not come as a surprise given that TSMC has twice sued SMIC for copying its technology. But no matter how SMIC managed to do it, the cat is now out of the bag and the cat can’t go back in the bag. If TechInsights is correct, SMIC can build 7nm chips. And even though the foundry remains several nodes behind TSMC and Samsung, the alarm is sounding.
Because profits may not matter to a company like SMIC that views state-owned enterprises as investors, it may not matter to the Chinese government how uneconomical SMIC is in producing 7nm chipsets. As a result, there is a fear that SMIC may get even closer to TSMC and Sammy. And if SMIC were to steal technology from TSMC, China could move toward process node parity with the top foundries faster than we think.
The MinerVa Bitcoin mining chip is showing signs of early-stage production. Bitcoin miners don’t use a lot of RAM allowing the 7nm SMIC chip to manage without the full capabilities that comparable chips from other advanced foundries would have.
But while we don’t like repeating ourselves, the Chinese government has the money and brainpower to eventually get around the lack of an EUV machine. In the meantime, SMIC will certainly build more complex chipsets based on its 7nm process node. At this point, SMIC’s 7nm node isn’t even ready to tackle smartphones, otherwise we’d see Huawei use it in its handsets.
As TechInsights notes, “This is the most advanced technology product TechInsights has seen from SMIC to date and could lead to a true 7nm process that includes scaled logic and memory bit cells. It also has important implications for Chinese chip companies as it helps to reduce reliance on Western technologies in this age of limited access.”