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China to build 7nm chips to surpass US as global leader

Despite US restrictions, China appears to have found out how to produce 7nm chips.

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According to reports, Chinese semiconductor giant SMIC has been producing 7-nanometer chips since last year. This is the clearest indication yet that China has managed to develop cutting-edge components despite US efforts to limit the country’s domestic silicon production.

This is based on information obtained from the American semiconductor analyst company TechInsights, which recently purchased a cryptocurrency-mining ASIC made by SMIC and discovered that it employs a 7nm manufacturing process after examining the chip’s die. According to its website, MinerVa is the business that created the ASIC and has been mass-producing the chip since July 2021.

According to TechInsights, TSMC’s 7nm process and SMIC’s 7nm process are “near copies” of each other. The company did note that the unique chip was probably just a “stepping stone” on the way to SMIC developing a “genuine 7nm technology” with scaled logic and memory bitcells.

It is more likely that the device is primarily a demonstration of 7nm logic because crypto-mining ASICs “likely do not have the conventional bitcell memory that real 7nm technology definition requires.”

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According to TechInsights, this is SMIC’s most advanced technology product to date and might pave the way for a real 7nm process that includes scaled logic and memory bitcells.

The US government, which has been attempting to restrict China’s ability to produce advanced chips because to concerns about national security, will probably view the development as bad news.

The 7nm crypto-mining device is probably intended for consumer or commercial usage, but according to China’s “military-civil fusion” ideology, which requires private enterprises to share their ideas with the military, the process node will probably be used in military applications there.

SMIC, the biggest domestic chipmaker in the Middle Kingdom, was included to the US Treasury Department’s entity list in December 2020 as a result of China’s push towards military technology. In order to stop SMIC from acquiring specific American technologies, this was done. For components that would enable SMIC to produce chips at 10nm or lower, the US imposed a special restriction.

Even before then, the US had been successful in exerting pressure on the Dutch government to prevent ASML, the sole supplier of the EUV lithography equipment used to produce chips on cutting-edge nodes like 7nm, from selling such systems to China.

Despite these efforts, China appears to have succeeded in producing finished goods on a 7nm node.

SMIC is able to accomplish this in part because EUV systems are not essential for producing cutting-edge chips. The chipmaker is most likely producing 7nm chips using deep ultraviolet lithography (DUV), an outdated type of lithography equipment.

This has happened before. Before using the machines for newer processes, TSMC and Samsung created several 7nm nodes without EUV. According to TechInsights, this did come “at the cost of greater process complexity and design rule constraints.” The big foundries are now adopting EUV to make such chips less complicated and more affordable.

Although SMIC has the capacity to produce 7nm chips, it won’t be simple, the implication is. According to TechInsights, this also implies the business will have to deal with more yield concerns than it would if it were employing EUV.

Although DUV is more frequently used to generate less-advanced semiconductors for a variety of products, the US has apparently been attempting to persuade Dutch officials to prevent ASML from selling DUV systems to China. In order to double its DUV capacity by 2023, SMIC intends to invest $11 billion, according to a BusinessKorea story.

Dylan Patel, a chip industry observer, pointed out yet another application of SMIC’s 7nm capability. He claimed that because American chipmaker Intel has not yet made its 7nm process available to foundry customers, China is currently more capable than the US or Europe of producing contract chips using this technology.

Read more: Pakistan to setup semiconductor manufacturing plant?

This is a problem because Taiwan, one of the two other regions with advanced chip foundry capabilities, is constantly being attacked by China. As a result, there are concerns that losing access to Taiwan’s chips could cause a “deep and immediate recession” in the US.

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