U.S. sanctions designed to slow the growth of Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp (SMIC), the largest chipmaker in China, had little chance against the company’s technological advancement. SMIC has made a technological advancement that ranks it among industry titans despite being on the U.S. trade blacklist, which comes with further restrictions on the purchase of cutting-edge equipment, according to South China Morning Post.
After examining a sample chip removed from a cryptocurrency mining device, Canadian research company TechInsights announced last month that SMIC had switched from the 14-nanometer to the 7-nanometer technique to create semiconductors.
According to the company’s follow-up report, SMIC had in fact attained “technological maturity,” as evidenced by “standard cells” – the fundamental components of logic chipset designs – that can compete with the top foundries in the world, including Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC), Samsung Electronics, and Intel.
A real 7-nm process that incorporates “scaled logic and memory bitcells” may result from this. Additionally, it would lessen China’s dependency on Western technologies at a time when access to cutting-edge technologies made available by Samsung, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company Limited, and other leading foundry service providers is restricted.
SMIC completed the transition to 7-nm in under two years.
In order to determine whether the sanctions imposed by the U.S. and its allies could impede China’s objective to reach semiconductor self-sufficiency, which has been a point of dispute between the two countries, industry watchers are now closely monitoring SMIC.
In order to discourage companies like TSMC, Samsung, Intel, and others from investing in advanced manufacturing, such as the 7-nm process technology in mainland China, the White House has signed the bipartisan Chips and Science Act into law. SMIC had already been placed on a national security blacklist by the Trump administration due to the company’s connections to the Chinese military. The chip manufacturer refuted the claims.
Additionally, according to the South China Morning Post, Washington is pressuring the Dutch government to prevent ASML Holdings, which holds a monopoly in the manufacture of cutting-edge chip-making equipment, from selling to mainland Chinese foundries like SMIC.
Despite having no access to the most sophisticated extreme ultraviolet lithography systems in the market, manufactured by ASML, TechInsights confirmed the Chinese chipmaker’s technological advancement in July after reverse engineering a SMIC MinerVA bitcoin mining processor.
The research company added that SMIC reached 7-nm capabilities in under two years even “without access to the most cutting-edge Western equipment and technologies.” To get to the same level, TSMC and Samsung needed three and five years, respectively.
The change may lessen China’s reliance on Western technology.
Given that “there are significant parallels in process technologies, designs, and advances between SMIC’s 7-nm and TSMC’s 7-nm,” SMIC is likely to have adopted the process integration strategies implemented by TSMC.
Under the direction of co-CEO Liang Mong Song, a veteran of the semiconductor industry and a former executive at TSMC, analysts and experts stated that it is technically feasible for SMIC to create 7-nm devices with existing deep ultraviolet systems.
In December 2020, SMIC was added to the so-called Entity List maintained by the U.S. Commerce Department. The penalties would constitute a barrier to its development of technology below 10-nm, which is used to create cutting-edge CPUs for cellphones and computers and prevents it from purchasing U.S.-origin innovations.
SMIC has since moved its attention to the established 28-nm technology. The business announced over the weekend that it will spend $7.5 billion to build a new 12-inch wafer production line in Tianjin, in the north, as part of its capacity expansion initiative, which has become more urgent due to worries about incoming U.S. trade restrictions.
SMIC now plans to “provide advanced fab process access to Chinese companies that have been barred from established advanced semi manufacturing, reduce China’s dependence on western technology and restrictions, use what they have learned from the “big three” (TSMC, Samsung, and Intel), and accelerate the introduction and ramp to mass production,” according to TechInsights’ report.