The Race for Smaller & Faster Semiconductors

NIKKEI Asia October 21, 2020 17:54 JST |CHINA TECH|”Semiconductor tech trends favor China”. “With miniaturization at a wall, upstarts gain edge in race for faster chips.”

Extreme ultraviolet light (EUV) is required to make today's fastest and smallest semiconductors. Image credit

Tsinghua Unigroup, “a leading Chinese high-tech conglomerate affiliated with the renowned Tshinghua University” has brought on Yukio Sakamoto, “a 73-year-old Japanese chipmaking business veteran…to oversee the launching of a DRAM memory-chip manufacturing business.” With the American government putting restrictions on Huawei and SMIC, known as Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation, Sakamoto remains optimistic with doing a new start-up.

As we know, from past history in other fields, being later to the game can be beneficial. And in this game, of chipmaking process improvements towards smaller and faster chips has slowed as the “smallness of transistors is approaching limits in terms of physics and optics.” This is a long-term play as China is determined, having been boxed-in by the POTUS and the Japanese, to “develop its own silicon wafer fabrication”. Currently China meets only “16% of its own demand” but Xi Jinping’s goal is 70% by 2025.

What’s the fuss all about?

“Until the mid-2000s, the industry kept pace with [Moore’s] law by shrinking the size of transistors and circuits built on a surface of a silicon wafer die.” Since then chipmakers have “kept reducing the labeling…[of new] chips…”from 32nm to 22nm to 14nm and to 10nm. But these numbers stopped representing actual transistor-gate sizes…”. The smallest now is labelled as “7nm” made by TSMC, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp., but has an actual gate length of 18 nm. This is being done, to circumvent traditional limitations, by making “use of the space above the conventional wafer surface to load more transistors onto a chip” in a process known as “three-dimensional technology”. This will eventually have an effect on Photolithography, “a process in which a circuit plan is imprinted on a photosensitized surface on a silicon wafer by beaming light toward the wafer through a glass plate called a photo mask on which the circuit plan images are drawn.”

As it turns out, with more miniaturization shorter-wave light is needed to achieve the needed resolution. Enter extreme ultraviolet or EUV a technology so “difficult and costly to develop that all but one lithography machine company, ASML of the Netherlands, have abandoned it.” ASML sells, but not to China per American government request, devices which are actually capable of making only “tiny parts of the entire chip fabrication process” for $120 million to $170 million.” Having this capability “brings about only modest miniaturization effects” according to “industry experts.”

The Chinese report some success in developing this EUV technology but finding other solutions may be more promising. Regardless, these remedies today still depend on Japanese, American and other supply chain sourcing. Experts recognize that developing a wholly China-based supply chain won’t be quick or easy but they believe that “China has a sufficient number of capable scientists and engineers to, in the long-run, accomplish the mission.