SMIC rumoured to have reached 7nm capabilities despite US efforts to prevent Chinese semiconductor development
02-08-2022 | By Robin Mitchell
Recently, engineers at TechInsights have de-capped a bitcoin miner ASIC manufactured by SMIC and discovered that 7nm technology is being used. Why is the west trying to prevent Chinese semiconductor development, what did the engineers discover, and is it a threat?
Why is the west trying to prevent Chinese semiconductor development?
For those not involved with national security and technology it would seem that the west has treated China harshly for the past decade. Numerous export bans have been put in place that limits China’s access to the latest semiconductor fabrication systems while also banning Chinese imports to hinder Chinese businesses. At the same time, both the US and the UK have ordered Chinese-made cellular infrastructure to be removed (primarily those from Huawei), while also introducing legislation to encourage home-grown semiconductors.
But if one looks at the tech history of China, its social practices, and displays of totalitarianism along with cybercriminal activities, it quickly becomes apparent why the west has a very negative opinion of China (to be specific, the Chinese government and not the people).
To start, the rising fear of China has coincided with the increasing introduction of authoritarianism by the current president of China Xi Jinping. Before 2010, China showed massive amounts of development including infrastructure and technology all of which were primarily made possible thanks to the relaxing of regulations and slow introduction of capitalism. However, after 2010, Xi Jinping decided to take China in a different direction with the increased use of surveillance, the resurgence of the communist party, removing political opponents, and the introduction of social credit systems (all signs of a leader desperate for power).
At the same time, China has continued to increase its cyberwarfare capabilities, and numerous attacks on global infrastructure have been traced to Chinese servers. Security audits on key hardware found in datacentres manufactured in China have been found to integrate miniature ICs that are suspected of providing foreign agents with backdoor access.
Furthermore, China’s increased spending in its military combined with threats against Taiwan (who currently supply a large portion of the world’s cutting-edge semiconductors), and encroachment into the South China Sea (going as far as to create artificial islands), shows that China is presenting itself as a major threat to stability. As semiconductors are the key to technological advancement and defence, preventing China access to the latest technologies allows for the west to remain dominant and thus keep China in check.
Fundamentally, had China fought against IP theft, worked with western nations to develop its own economy, and not continually conducted espionage and cybercriminal activities, China could have had full access to the latest tech and become a world leader in manufacturing. But because of the actions of Xi Jinping and the communist party, China is increasingly becoming more isolated from the world.
TechInsights reveals that SMIC has 7nm capabilities
With all the trade restrictions against China, it has been widely believed that China has been unable to go beyond 10nm as they are unable to obtain EUV lithography equipment (form ASML). In fact, the SMIC website states that they currently offer 14nm devices (12nm is also available for optimised designs). Despite this, TechInsights recently discovered through reverse engineering that SMIC does indeed have the capability to produce 7nm devices.
The discovery was made when TechInsights purchased ASIC chips used in bitcoin miners to see what technology was being used by SMIC. After stripping the package off the die and observing it under a microscope, it quickly became apparent that the technology used in the ASIC was similar to that of TSMCs 7nm process (which comes as no surprise when considering that China has been poaching researchers from TSMC for the past few years).
It turns out that while 7nm devices are commonly made using EUV systems, they can also be manufactured using DUV (Deep Ultraviolet) lithographic systems. However, 7nm devices made using DUV require a more complex process and have lower yields. At the same time, DUV may have restrictions on transistor densities and circuit arrangements limiting the types of devices that can be fabricated. Despite these limitations, 7nm devices fabricated using DUV will still offer power and performance boosts that now puts China only 6 years behind the west.
Is this development a threat?
It is hard to determine if SMIC's ability to manufacture 7nm devices is a threat, but it is concerning that SMIC does not publicly announce that they have this capability. Considering the challenges that the Chinese semiconductor industry has faced, it would make sense for the Chinese government to parade their efforts in developing a 7nm in spite of the West's actions. As such, the secrecy of the development may be a result of its untested nature, or that China doesn’t want to reveal its cards just yet (a revelation that it has advanced technology could encourage aggressive actions).
As SMIC is known to have ties with the Chinese military, there is no doubt that this technology will be used to improve Chinese military capabilities. Additionally, the development of 7nm devices will also find their way into key infrastructures such as cellular networks and cloud computing.
Overall, the development of 7nm in China will likely bring about new military hardware, improved developments in AI and cyberwarfare capabilities, and a level of semiconductor independence that the west desperately craves.