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SMIC’s 7-nm chip process a wake-up call for US

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China's SMIC chipmaker is working to transcend US sanctions. Image: Twitter / Global Times
A TechInsights report stating that a bitcoin mining integrated circuit (IC) sold by MinerVa “appears to be manufactured in SMIC 7-nm technology node” has triggered an outburst of commentary about the failure of American sanctions to stop the advance of Chinese semiconductor technology.
TechInsights is a Canadian provider of semiconductor-related analysis and intellectual property services to technology companies and other subscribers. It is known for its reverse engineering capability.
Referred to as “China-based” by Bloomberg, MinerVa Semiconductor is registered in Canada. But the three directors listed in its registration are Chinese and the address given for one of them is in China’s Henan province. The “About Us” section on the company’s website is blank.
MinerVA Semiconductor claims that its MinerVa7 is “one of the best-valued chips” for mining Bitcoin and that it “utilizes mature foundry technology to ensure chip yield, quality and reliability.”

Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp, or SMIC, is China’s largest semiconductor foundry (contract manufacturer) and a prominent target of US technology sanctions aimed at curbing China’s access to advanced chips and the capacity to produce them.

The report describes SMIC’s efforts to put 7-nm process technology into production as a qualified success. After noting similarities with Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company’s (TSMC) 7-nm process, it goes on to say that SMIC’s System-on-Chip (SoC) device seems to be a low-volume “steppingstone” that has the logic but not the memory aspects of a standard TSMC or Samsung product.

This is possible because “bitcoin miners have limited RAM [random access memory] requirements,” the report said. For reference, an SoC is an IC that incorporates a processing unit (logic), memory and other components, creating a specialized computer or other type of electronic system in a single device.

TechInsights also points out that SMIC’s use of Deep Ultra-Violet (DUV) lithography has resulted in a more complex and costly process that probably has lower yields than the Extreme Ultra-Violet (EUV) lithography-based processes now used by TSMC and Samsung.

But SMIC has no choice. It must use DUV because the US Commerce Department put in on its Entity List in December 2020, stating at the time that “Items uniquely required to produce semiconductors at advanced technology nodes – 10 nanometers or below – will be subject to a presumption of denial to prevent such key enabling technology from supporting China’s military-civil fusion efforts.”



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The US is urging lithography tool-makers to stop selling to China. Image: Facebook
The Entity List restricts trade with foreign entities – persons, corporations, governments – without a license from the Commerce Department. In practice, this has meant that sales of EUV lithography equipment to SMIC and other Chinese semiconductor makers are banned. Sales of other types of equipment – quite a lot of it, according to media reports – has been permitted.

The production of EUV equipment is monopolized by ASML of the Netherlands, but it incorporates a light source made by an American company, Cymer, which ASML acquired in 2013. The Dutch government has to date supported the sanctions.

US sanctions may prevent SMIC from upgrading from DUV to EUV, but they have not stopped it from developing process technology at 10-nm and below. As a result, the US government is now seeking to ban sales of DUV lithography equipment to SMIC.

Read: “US pressing even tougher chip bans on China
 

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