Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp (SMIC), China’s top chip maker, has likely gained the ability to produce 7-nanometer chips, according to Canadian tech analysis firm TechInsights, marking a significant breakthrough as China aims for technological self-sufficiency to counter U.S. sanctions. TechInsights researchers reverse-engineered a sample chip made by SMIC, extracted from a cryptocurrency mining machine. Analysts and industry professionals believe it is technically possible for SMIC to produce 7 nm 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 (TSMC). SMIC has not made any public comment about the possibility that it has achieved 7 nm capability, even though the type of chip that TechInsights analyzed has been in production since July last year. SMIC declined to comment on TechInsights’ report.
While SMIC’s improved capability could mark a technological milestone for the Shanghai-based company, some experts question the commercial viability of using less advanced DUV systems, which are used in a wide range of chip-making processes, to produce 7 nm chips. “In theory, I believe DUV’s limit is 7 nm, but the yield and performance may not be great at that limit,” said Woz Ahmed, Managing Director of consultancy Chilli Ventures and former Chief Strategy Officer at British semiconductor and software design firm Imagination Technologies. Most industry players are using extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUV) systems to produce 7 nm or more advanced chips. Moreover, the transistor density, power and speed characteristics of 7 nm chips made by different manufacturers can vary widely, Ahmed added, so it may not be meaningful to compare SMIC’s chips with those produced by rivals.
The findings come as the U.S. government continues to lobby authorities in the Netherlands – home to key semiconductor equipment supplier ASML – to further restrict sales to SMIC. The company, which was put on a U.S. entity list in December 2020, is already unable to import equipment for making chips below 10 nm, including the latest EUV machines. It currently relies on less advanced DUV systems from ASML to expand its capabilities, focusing on using mature 28 nm and above technologies to produce chips for cars and home appliances, rather than for high-end smartphones and tablets, which have moved onto more sophisticated chips.
News that SMIC may have achieved 7 nm capability could be enough to “trigger more U.S. restrictions to tame the rise of China’s semiconductor industry”, said Arisa Liu, Senior Semiconductor Research Fellow at the Taiwan Institute of Economic Research. SMIC says its most advanced technology is 14 nm, the South China Morning Post reports. Even it it is able to produce 7 nm chips, SMIC remains one to two generations behind TSMC and South Korea’s Samsung Electronics.