Zeng Liaoyuan knows the technological ecosystem of his country in a deep way. This associate professor of telecommunications engineering at Chengdu University of Technology and Electronics in China portends difficult times for the semiconductor industry of this economic and scientific powerhouse. In fact, this expert has predicted how long it will take his country to be able to manufacture advanced semiconductors on his behalf: at least two decades.
However, Liaoyuan is not the only coach looking at the horizon with some skepticism. His colleagues in academia share with him the need for China to pull the plug: “We weigh the importance of changing the playing field with the United States. In manufacturing there is certainly no there is no sector that can stay out of the chips”, says this expert.
This statement sums up the challenge China is facing to withstand the pressure that the US-led alliance is putting on its integrated circuit industry. Chinese experts believe that in order to survive their technology companies they have to innovate and diversify. In the short term this strategy makes sense, but in the long term this gigantic country will have no choice but to make its semiconductor industry independent of technologies coming from foreign powers.
Where do the two decades predicted by Liaoyuan and other Chinese experts come from?
The largest Chinese chipmaker is SMIC. This company has an approximate market share of 5%, which allows it to step on the heels of the American GlobalFoundries and the Taiwanese UMC (both have a share of 7%). However, there is something very important that puts this Chinese company at a clear disadvantage compared to its American, Taiwanese and South Korean competitors: it does not have access to extreme ultraviolet (EVU) lithography machines, which are currently the most sophisticated available.
It took ASML approximately two decades to develop the technology to make semiconductor production possible on its UVE lithography equipment.
The only company that is capable of manufacturing them is ASML, and it resides in the Netherlands. to this company it took about two decades develop the necessary technology to make possible the production of highly integrated semiconductors in its UVE photolithography equipment, and had the financial support of large investors, such as Intel or TSMC, and also with the scientific drive of several leading companies, such as the American Cymer or the German ZEISS, among others.
The first designs and manufactures the ultraviolet light source that is responsible for transporting the geometric pattern described by the mask so that it can be transferred with great precision to the surface of the silicon wafer. And the German company produces the optical elements that are responsible for transferring EUV light with a wavelength of 13.5 nm from the source that is responsible for its emission to the mask that contains the geometric pattern.
The two decades that Liaoyuan and other experts say it takes for China to develop its own advanced lithography equipment coincides suspiciously with the time it took ASML to invest in fine-tuning its UVE photolithography machine. SMIC is currently producing integrated circuits in its 14 nm nodes, although in August 2022 several Chinese media leaked that it already had the necessary technological base ready for manufacture 7 nm chips.
If this information is true, this Chinese company would already be prepared to compete with Intel, and would be only one step behind TSMC and Samsung. However, it is surprising that he has achieved this advance without even having his own UVE photolithography equipment. On the other hand, even taking this leak for granted, SMIC would have a hard time continuing to refine its integration technology without developing its own extreme ultraviolet equipment. There is no doubt that China has enormous economic and scientific capacity, but it also has a long road ahead of it, full of technological challenges.
Cover image: ASML
More information: SCMP
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