China’s top chipmaker SMIC just achieved an Intel-like breakthrough

The company achieved the leap from 14-nm to 7-nm without the most advanced equipment due to U.S. curbs.
Deena Theresa
A computer chip with a Chinese flag.
A computer chip with a Chinese flag.

Madmaxer/iStock 

U.S. sanctions intended to halt the rise of China's largest chipmaker, Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp (SMIC), didn't stand a chance against the company's technological progress. Despite being on the U.S. trade blacklist, complete with additional restrictions on the import of advanced equipment, SMIC has made a technological breakthrough that places it among industry giants, reported South China Morning Post.

Canada-based research firm TechInsights declared last month that SMIC had made the jump from the 14-nanometer to 7-nanometer process to produce semiconductors after inspecting a sample chip extracted from a cryptocurrency mining machine.

The firm's follow-up report now states that SMIC had indeed achieved "technological maturity," as measured by "standard cells" – the basic building blocks in logic chipset designs – that can rival the world’s leading foundries, such as Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC), Samsung Electronics, and Intel.

This could lead to a true 7-nm process that integrates "scaled logic and memory bitcells." It could also help reduce China's reliance on Western technologies at a time of restricted access to advanced technologies available from Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company Limited, Samsung, and other cutting-edge foundry service providers.

China’s top chipmaker SMIC just achieved an Intel-like breakthrough
A worker operating a chip for electrical appliances.

SMIC took only two years to reach 7-nm capability

Industry analysts are now keeping a close watch on SMIC, wanting to find out if the sanctions imposed by the U.S. and its allies could halt China's goal to achieve semiconductor self-sufficiency, which has been a bone of contention between the two nations.

The White House had signed the bipartisan Chips and Science Act into law, primarily to deter TSMC, Samsung, Intel, and others from investing in advanced manufacturing, including 7-nm process technology in mainland China. Previously, the Trump administration had blacklisted SMIC on national security concerns, citing the company's ties with the Chinese military. The chipmaker denied the allegations.

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South China Morning Post also reported that Washington is lobbying the Dutch government to block ASML Holdings, which has a dominant position in the production of advanced chip-making machines, from selling to mainland Chinese foundries, including SMIC.

In July, TechInsights reverse-engineered a MinerVA bitcoin mining processor made by SMIC and reiterated the Chinese chipmaker's technological breakthrough despite having zero access to the industry’s most advanced extreme ultraviolet lithography systems from ASML.

The research firm also noted that SMIC took only two years to reach 7-nm capability even "without access to the most advanced Western equipment and technologies." TSMC and Samsung had taken three and five years, respectively, to reach the same level.

The development could reduce China's dependence on western technology

SMIC is likely to have implemented process integration choices deployed by TSMC, as "there are many similarities in process technologies, designs and innovations between SMIC’s 7-nm and TSMC’s 7-nm."

Analysts and experts said that it is technically possible for SMIC to produce 7-nm chips with existing deep ultraviolet systems under the leadership of co-CEO Liang Mong Song, a semiconductor industry veteran who was previously an executive at TSMC.

SMIC was added to the U.S. Commerce Department’s so-called Entity List in December 2020. The sanctions, which prevent it from buying U.S.-origin technologies, would be an obstacle to its development of technology below 10-nm, used to make advanced processors for smartphones and computers.

Since then, SMIC has shifted its focus to mature 28-nm technology. Over the weekend, the company said that it is $7.5 billion to develop a new 12-inch wafer production line in the northern city of Tianjin as part of its capacity expansion program that has gained urgency amid concerns of fresh U.S. trade sanctions.

In their report, TechInsights wrote that SMIC now intends to "provide advanced fab process access to Chinese companies who have been restricted 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."

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