Huawei Invests in Lithography to Achieve Supply-Chain Sovereignty

16-06-2021 | By Robin Mitchell

Recently, Huawei Technology Investments invested $12.8 million into Beijing RSLaser Opto-Electronics to help secure its semiconductor supply chain. Why are nations moving towards semiconductor sovereignty, why has Huawei invested in light sources, and how will this affect US sanctions against China?

Why are nations moving towards semiconductor sovereignty?

News sites worldwide are all buzzing with topics around the current semiconductor shortage and how it affects car manufacturers, graphics chips designers, and even the gaming market. But, the shortage of semiconductors as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light the importance of semiconductors in the world economy

Before COVID, the importance of semiconductor technology to the defence of a nation was obvious; the nation with the best chips would arguably have the best cyber offensive and defensive capabilities. However, the recent pandemic shook the world with the introduction of lockdowns and halting of many industries, and this had a ripple effect that heavily affected the semiconductor industry. 

When economies around the world attempted to resume, they were met with major problems as semiconductors were in limited supply. To make matters worse, returning semiconductor stocks to pre-pandemic levels can take as much as two years. Thus, the world was enlightened to the fact that semiconductors are just as important as fuel, food, and water. A nation that cannot access semiconductors might as well be a nation from the pre-1950’s with severely limited capabilities. Just the very act of preventing a nation with access to semiconductors from the past 5 years is enough to set them back significantly. 

As such, nations worldwide are recognising the importance of being in control of their semiconductor supplies and are now rushing to create their own internal supply chains. 

Huawei Invests in Light Sources for Lithography

Recently, Huawei Technology Investments (a subsidiary of Huawei) announced that it has invested $12.8 million in Beijing RSLaser Opto-Electronics Technology Co which focuses on creating light sources used in lithography machines. This investment adds to the 28 other Huawei Technology Investments investments in semiconductor-based industries, including Epiworld and NineCube.

Of all stages in the creation of semiconductor devices, the one step that is arguably the most crucial is the lithography stage. Most laboratories can grow crystals and atomic layers with relative ease, but embedding patterns which contain nanometre features is extremely challenging.  An electron beam can be used to move individual atoms on a surface as well as etch tiny designs, but these take far too long to be used in the creation of a billion transistor chip. 

Lithography is the process whereby a mask (which contains a pattern for an entire device), has light shone through it, and the resulting light pattern is shrunk onto a silicon die. While this is easy to do for large feature sizes (such as 1um), trying to get light that has wavelengths in the hundreds of nanometres to create features that are just a few nanometres in size takes real brilliance. So far, the most common method to achieve smaller sizes is to use smaller wavelengths of light (such as extreme ultraviolet), but generating such light correctly is no small feat.

Huawei already has access to lithography machines, but what it lacks access to is the light source. Since US sanctions on China prevent Huawei access to the needed light sources to produce the next generation of nm devices, Huawei is now turning to control its own supply chain in its entirety. As such, Huawei’s investment into RS Laser is to try and secure light source technologies that will enable it to make nm devices while remaining independent of US sanctions.

How will chip sovereignty affect US sanctions?

It is understandable why the US has technology sanctions against China, but cutting countries out entirely from advanced technology may cause more harm than good. The first immediate danger of such sanctions is the effect on peoples lives in countries that cannot compete with other nations. This could put said nations at an economic advantage that effectively creates an unfair market favouring those who have access to better technologies.

The second area of concern for such sanctions is the potential creation of multiple technological environments. Simply put, whenever the industry creates an open standard or architecture, everyone wins. For example, the development of IBM compatible computers enabled Microsoft to become successful while creating a computer platform that enabled software to work with a. computer regardless of the make or model. Furthermore, compatible systems help reduce the cost of systems, which increases the demand for technology. This funds the development of better systems, and as such technology can grow at an exponential rate. 

By leaving out major countries such as China, there is a chance that these countries will develop their own independent methods and technology. This could shatter cohesion in the technological world, potentially seeing the rise of different standards such as communication protocols,  CPU architectures, and incompatible software systems.


By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.