Did China successfully fabricate 7nm chips, despite US sanctions on advanced chip manufacturing technology?
Well, yes, but not quite. Here is what you need to know about China’s mysterious 7nm chips!
China Made 7nm Chips In Spite Of US Sanctions!
A TechInsights report recently concluded that China has successfully created 7nm chips since last year.
This caused quite a ruckus, because it essentially meant that China jumped two generations ahead in chip manufacturing technology!
The TechInsights team bought a MinerVa mining ASIC which used a custom chip that has been manufactured by China’s SMIC since July 2021.
When they examined the chip, they discovered that it was fabricated on a 7nm process that appears to be a “close copy” of a 7nm process used by TSMC – the Taiwanese foundry giant.
The MinerVa chip is small – at just 19.3 mm², with 120 chips populating the MinerVa board. Each mining ASIC has 3 of these boards, for a total of 360 chips and a total power consumption of 3300 watts.
This discovery is deeply concerning to many people, because it meant that China has more advanced chip manufacturing technology than is even available in the United States or EU.
After all, US sanctioned the sale of advanced chip manufacturing technology to China – which was meant to crippled China’s ability to manufacture such chips.
US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer used this report to stress the danger of delaying the $50 billion subsidy package for semiconductor manufacturing in the United States.
Members of both sides know that America’s chips crisis is sending shock waves across the economy.
It is endangering our national security. […] China’s top chips maker has now likely advanced its tech by two generations, threatening U.S. competitiveness.
But the situation really isn’t as dire as many people make it out to be…
SMIC / China Barely Made Those 7nm Chips
After the report was released, the Internet fell into two main camps – American politicians and China hawks bemoaning the “loss” of Western chip making advantage, and pro-CCP netizens celebrating it.
First, let me start by congratulating China / SMIC on achieving this feat despite being hobbled by US sanctions on crucial chipmaking technology.
Whether China / SMIC “copied / stole / bought” the technology knowhow from TSMC whose 7nm process it closely resembles, it is still a remarkable achievement.
That said, SMIC / China barely made those 7nm chips, and here are the reasons why…
SMIC manufactured these 7nm chips using older Deep Ultraviolet Lithography (DUV) machines, instead of the state-of-art Extreme Ultraviolet Light (EUV) lithography machines made by Dutch company ASML.
This isn’t extraordinary in itself – TSMC and Samsung had much earlier developed 7nm process nodes using the older DUV machines. However, this comes at the cost of “increased process complexity and design rule restrictions“.
That is likely why the MinerVa chip is not only very small, it actually lacks SRAM (Static Random Access Memory) that is critical in processors that run our computers and smartphones.
The simpler design and small size allow SMIC to obtain sufficient workable chips, even with a poor yield. However, the cost of chip would be much higher than if it was manufactured on a higher-quality process.
So for all intents and purposes – this should be considered as a niche / prototype 7nm process, and not a true 7nm process node.
On top of that, SMIC apparently isn’t capable of producing large quantities of these 7nm chips, suggesting either a yield problem, or difficulty in scaling up.
MinerVa has not been able to deliver the mining ASICs based on these SMIC 7nm chips in large numbers. A Bitcoin mining company – Stronghold Digital Mining, for example, said that it ordered 15,000 miners from MinerVa but only received about 3,200 units as of March 2022.
For China / SMIC to present a true “threat” as far as chipmaking is concerned, it would have to be capable of manufacturing MILLIONS of chips, not thousands.
Regardless of whether the Americans are howling in despair, or the pro-CCP netizens are howling in delight, China really does not have true 7nm chipmaking capability for mass production yet.
And even if they somehow manage to improve and scale up this 7nm DUV process, they cannot make more advanced chips without EUV machines made by ASML.
As long as the Dutch government holds firm on blocking sale of ASML’s EUV machines to China, this is likely as far as they can go… unless they invade Taiwan, which is where TSMC is based and has the world’s most advanced chip manufacturing facilities.
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Dr. Adrian Wong has been writing about tech and science since 1997, even publishing a book with Prentice Hall called Breaking Through The BIOS Barrier (ISBN 978-0131455368) while in medical school.
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