Integrated circuits have been in the spotlight for many months. Years, even. They are everywhere. In each and every one of the devices equipped with electronic components that we use on a daily basis. And, even more importantly, a country’s technological development is largely conditioned by its ability to manufacture or acquire cutting-edge chips. This is, precisely, the germ of the semiconductor war that the alliance led by the US and China is waging.
We owe it to the current situation, and this conflict is important enough for us to follow it very closely and try to keep you up to date with everything relevant that is happening in a crisis that largely affects us all. However, we are aware that some of our readers are not comfortable with the concepts and terminology we use in our articles dedicated to semiconductors. This text is for you. We trust that it will help you to leave all the ends well tied.
a semiconductor It is an element or compound that under certain conditions of pressure, temperature, or when exposed to radiation or an electromagnetic field, behaves like a conductor, and, therefore, offers little resistance to the movement of electrical charges. And when it is found in other different conditions it behaves like an insulator. In this last state it offers great resistance to the displacement of electrical charges.
In elements with electrical conduction capacity, some of the electrons in their atoms, known as free electrons, can pass from one atom to another when we apply a potential difference at the ends of the conductor. Precisely, this ability to move electrons is what we know as electric current, and we all intuitively know that metals are good conductors of electricity. Curiously, they are because they have many free electrons that can move from one atom to another and, thus, they manage to transport the electrical charge.
silicon It is the semiconductor par excellence. It is the most used currently, and has been for a whopping almost six decades, since it dethroned germanium in the 1960s and established itself as the semiconductor with the most potential and the most used by the electronics industry. Even so, there is a possibility that its reign in the future will be threatened to some extent by other semiconductors that also have great potential.
One of them is gallium arsenide. Unlike silicon, germanium, selenium or tellurium, it is not an elemental semiconductor. These semiconductors are characterized by being made up of a single chemical element, but gallium arsenide (GaAs), as we can guess even if we do not know much chemistry, is composed of gallium (Ga) and arsenic (As). It is unlikely that it will end up replacing silicon, but it is bidding ever higher and establishing itself as an ideal complement to it.
Tokyo Electron, Nikon and Canon are some of the most successful photolithography equipment manufacturers in this industry, but there is one that is even more relevant: ASML
Lithography equipment They are the machines used by integrated circuit manufacturers to produce chips. They are extremely sophisticated and very expensive. Tokyo Electron, Nikon and Canon are some of the most successful photolithography equipment manufacturers in this industry, but there is one that is even more relevant than these three Japanese companies: the Netherlands company ASML.
Its relevance lies in the fact that it is the only company that has managed to design and manufacture extreme ultraviolet (UVE) photolithography equipment, which are the most advanced chip manufacturing machines that exist. In fact, they are the ones used to produce cutting-edge integrated circuits, such as those of 7, 5 or 3 nm.
ASML is the real queen of the chip industry. This Dutch company sells its extreme ultraviolet (EUV), deep ultraviolet (UVP) lithography equipment or other not so sophisticated machines to TSMC, Samsung, Intel, GlobalFoundries, SMIC, UMC, Micron or SK Hynix, among many other semiconductor manufacturers . However, the only companies currently making cutting-edge chips with UVE lithography equipment are TSMC, Intel, and Samsung.
Just one of these highly sophisticated pieces of equipment contains more than 100,000 parts, 3,000 cables, 40,000 bolts and no less than two kilometers of electrical connections. That’s where it is. However, hardware is only one of the ingredients in the recipe. The other, and also essential, is the integrated software that is responsible for directing and supervising the correct operation of each of the lithography equipment. ASML is also responsible for developing it.
An EUV lithography equipment contains more than 100,000 parts, 3,000 cables, 40,000 bolts and no less than two kilometers of electrical connections
The high aperture UVE lithography machine It is currently the most advanced photolithography equipment available. ASML CEO Peter Wennink confirmed in early September that his company plans to deliver its first EUV High-NA (EUV High-NA) lithography equipment to one of its customers before the end of this year. English). In practice, this machine is a second-generation EUV lithography equipment, and each of them will cost approximately $300 million (twice as much as a first-generation EUV machine).
TSMC, Intel y Samsung They are the largest chip manufacturers on the planet. The Taiwanese company TSMC leads this industry with an approximate market share of 54%. The American company Intel and the South Korean Samsung follow at a great distance with a share each of them that moves in the orbit of 12 to 15%. Behind them, both with a 7% share, are the Taiwanese UMC and the American GlobalFoundries, and hot on their heels is the Chinese company SMIC, with an approximate market share of 5%.
SMIC (Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp), the largest Chinese semiconductor manufacturer, currently has the capacity to manufacture 7nm integrated circuits. And probably 5nm too. We know this with complete certainty because this company manufactures the Kirin 9000S SoC integrated into Huawei’s recently launched Mate 60 Pro smartphone. The curious thing is that in theory it cannot manufacture cutting-edge chips like these because the US-led alliance has prohibited ASML from selling its EUV lithography equipment to Chinese companies.
What it does have are the Twinscan NXT:2000i deep ultraviolet (UVP) equipment manufactured by ASML. These machines have not been designed to develop integrated circuits comparable to the most advanced ones currently manufactured by TSMC, Intel or Samsung, but, and here comes the surprise, SMIC engineers have managed to refine them to produce cutting-edge semiconductors. China’s medium-term plan requires its lithography equipment manufacturers to be able to develop their own extreme ultraviolet machines.
Cover image: Intel
In Xataka: The wild fight between the US and China is going to have a collateral effect: it is going to benefit us, the users of their chips