SMIC at 7-nm semiconductor process node: A Shanghai surprise?

Article By : Majeed Ahmad

SMIC's rise to 7nm process node has imposed questions about the U.S. technology restrictions imposed on semiconductor fabs in China.

China’s largest foundry Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp. (SMIC) has taken everyone by surprise with a dramatic ascent to the 7-nm process node despite its lack of access to ASML’s extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUV) technology due to U.S. restrictions placed in late 2020. The U.S. export control restrictions imply that fabs in China cannot fabricate semiconductors at 10 nm and beyond.

The Shanghai-based fab is widely known to have accomplished 14-nm FinFET technology, which puts it two generations behind 7 nm and roughly four years behind the most advanced process nodes offered by TSMC and Samsung. But that has suddenly changed after reverse engineering and teardown firm TechInsights revealed SMIC’s rise to 7-nm glory in a blogpost.

In summer 2021, MinerVa Semiconductor Corp. in China showcased a 7-nm chip for Bitcoin mining on its website without naming the manufacturing fab. However, MinerVa is a SMIC customer. Dylan Patel, chief analyst at SemiAnalysis, was the first to spot this development. Next, TechInsights bought the chip on the open market and began analyzing it in its lab.

Source: TechInsights

It has now been found that SMIC has started mass production of chips at the 7-nm process node dubbed N+2. However, the Chinese semiconductor fab hasn’t talked about its 7-nm capability during its earning calls. Industry observers widely believe that SMIC has used its 14-nm FinFET technology to develop the 7nm process node. And that SMIC cannot develop process nodes beyond 7 nm without EUV technology.

Patel, in his blogpost, credits a combination of huge subsidies from the state, poaching TSMC engineers, and large home-grown expertise for SMIC’s advancement to 7-nm process geometry. He also reckons that SMIC could soon displace GlobalFoundries as the third largest fab in the world, behind TSMC and Samsung.

SMIC’s Shanghai surprise has also imposed questions about the U.S. restrictions related to semiconductor manufacturing technology imposed on fabs in China. Another important thing to watch after this groundbreaking discovery from TechInsights will be how fabs in China make their way to smaller nodes without access to ASML’s EUV chip manufacturing technology.

This article was originally published on EDN.

Majeed Ahmad, Editor-in-Chief of EDN and Planet Analog, has covered the electronics design industry for more than two decades.

 

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