Media: SMIC is actively working on 3nm chips despite US sanctions restricting it
December 24, 2023

Media: SMIC is actively working on 3nm chips despite US sanctions restricting it

Chinese semiconductor manufacturer SMIC is actively working to develop post-7nm chip manufacturing technologies, such as 5nm and even 3nm, claims a new report from Nikkei Asia. This Chinese company succeeds in this despite US sanctions that not only limit it, but also the entire chip industry of China, banning the export of advanced technology by which chips are produced.

After SMIC, which is the acronym for Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation’s full name, succeeded in developing its second-generation 7nm chip manufacturing process that is good enough for smartphone processors, the company is not stopping. Now SMIC reportedly has an entire team dedicated to the research and development of 5 nm and 3 nm class manufacturing technologies, the portal writes, citing two sources familiar with the situation.

This department is headed by the company’s co-executive director, Liang Mong-Song, who also worked in the currently most advanced chip production company in the world – TSMC from Taiwan, as well as in the South Korean giant Samsung. Analysts consider him one of the best scientists and managers in the global semiconductor industry.

There is no smarter scientist or engineer than that man“, previously said Dick Thurston, former chief legal counsel of the TSMC company.

SMIC itself has come a long way from a small factory in China to rise to the level of the fifth largest manufacturer in the industry as a whole. However, amid rising tensions between the US and China, the company was blacklisted by the US Department of Commerce and thus lost access to leading chip manufacturing equipment, slowing its progress.

As a result, SMIC was unable to obtain extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography machines from the only manufacturer of such equipment in the world – the Dutch company ASML, whose country joined the US sanctions. With that in mind, the Chinese giant is left to rely on somewhat older production equipment such as deep ultraviolet (DUV) lithography machines. And despite the older equipment, SMIC managed to build a second-generation 7nm manufacturing process relying solely on DUV machines.

That’s still quite a feat, even though TSMC’s N7P manufacturing process also doesn’t use EUV technology. However, from the pre-sanctions era, SMIC still has AMSL lithography machines such as the Twinscan NXT:2000i in stock. They are suitable for printing metal joints at a resolution of up to 38 nm, using double patterning, which is also suitable for the 7 nm process. However, at 5 nm, metal junctions shrink to 30 to 32 nm, and at 3 nm they drop to 21 to 24 nm, ASML claims. This is where EUV machines become crucial.

However, using lithographic tools with ultrafine resolution (13 nm for EUV low NA – Low Numerical Aperture) is still not the only way to achieve this goal. Multi-patterning is definitely an option, but it’s a complicated process that increases cycle time, can affect chip yield, wears down factory equipment, and certainly increases costs. That, despite the listed bad features, without EUV machines, is currently the only thing left to SMIC.

Thurston believes that under scientist Mong-Song, SMIC can produce, if not produce, 5nm chips in large quantities, and even those based on the 3nm manufacturing process without EUV machines. Although we have already heard several times about the ability of this company to switch to 5 nm chips without modern equipment, this is the first time that we are now hearing it when it comes to even more advanced 3 nm chips and that from a fairly reliable source and portal.