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After the Chinese technology firm Huawei created waves in the media earlier this year by being able to introduce advanced semiconductors in its devices despite U.S. sanctions aimed at preventing it from doing so, a former Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) executive believes that Huawei can make even more advanced chips with the machines currently at its disposal. Huawei does not manufacture its own chips since nearly all consumer electronics firms rely on contract chip manufacturers such as TSMC to build them due to high capital expenditure requirements.
After it was stopped from procuring chips from TSMC, Huawei and China’s leading chip maker, the Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation (SMIC), have partnered up to try to bring advanced chips to the market despite the U.S. restrictions.
SMIC Should Be Able To Make 5-nanometer Chips With Existing Machines Shares Chip Executive
Huawei made headlines in September when a teardown of one of its latest smartphones, the Mate 60, revealed that its processor was built through a 7-nanometer chip node. For most media observers, this was a surprise since not only can Huawei not source its chips from TSMC, but its primary supplier SMIC, is also restricted from buying advanced extreme ultraviolet (EUV) machines from the Dutch firm ASML.
While the common understanding of the chip sector assumes that EUV machines are absolutely necessary to make 7-nanometer and smaller chips, the reality is different. Semiconductor fabrication firms such as TSMC can use EUV’s predecessors, deep ultraviolet (DUV) machines to make them. However, EUV is typically preferred since it enables the manufacturers to print out smaller circuits quicker and reduce error rates as well.
Now, a former TSMC vice president, Lin Burn-jeng, agrees with this assessment according to statements he made during an interview at Taiwan’s National Tsing Hua University. Dr. Lin started working at TSMC and would become a vice president of research and development at the company. Prior to joining the Taiwanese company, he spent decades working at IBM.
Dr. Lin is one of the most respected officials in the chip sector due to his work with immersion lithography. He holds more than 60 patents and has more than a dozen awards from TSMC and IBM while working at the two companies. ASML’s machines rely extensively on immersion lithography and use several mirrors to redirect light through water to make crisp patterns on silicon wafers by using the process.
According to the former TSMC and IBM executive, SMIC should be able to use the chip manufacturing machines that it already has to further reduce feature size and make the transition to 5-nanometer. While the U.S. has sanctioned SMIC from buying EUV machines, sanctions for DUV equipment are not yet in place despite being heavily reported in the media.
Dr. Lin was quite candid about SMIC and China’s chip manufacturing potential as he added that it is just “not possible” for the U.S. to completely stop China from advancing in semiconductor technology. Key concerns behind the Commerce Department’s decision to sanction SMIC and China when it comes to semiconductor fabrication include risks of the advanced products being used by the Chinese military. Washington has also levied sanctions on NVIDIA’s advanced AI products that are based on the same premise.
TSMC’s two generation old chip node, the N7, was the first to use EUV technology for advanced chips. Node classifications, such as the N7, often lump in several technologies under the same brand. For instance, while 7-nanometer might be used to describe chips with feature sizes as small as 7-nanometer, the broader N7 classification includes technologies such as 6nm. While TSMC’s standard 7nm products did not use EUV, the advanced 7nm+ node became the first to rely on ultraviolet light.