29-09-2023 | By Robin Mitchell
In the ongoing semiconductor battle between China and the West, China is strategizing to build its own particle accelerator for advanced lithographic systems, potentially sidestepping the reliance on ASML systems. What challenges does China face with regard to sub-7nm processes, how will the new particle accelerator help to solve these challenges, and does this mean that sanctions and restrictions against China have failed?
What challenges does China face with sub-7nm processes?
The West and China have been engaged in a semiconductor war for years. As the West tightens the noose on Chinese access to sub-7nm devices, China has introduced numerous controls over key materials, including germanium and gallium.
The semiconductor standoff has led to economic repercussions for both parties. However, many argue that the actions against China are a necessary response to its swift technological progress and the associated security concerns. The speed at which China is developing advanced technologies such as AI has put the West at a serious disadvantage, and the prevalence of Chinese hardware in critical infrastructure could undermine national security.
Historically, China has been dependent on nations like Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea for its semiconductor needs. The West's restrictions aim to level the playing field, prompting the question: Why can’t China produce its own semiconductors?
One of the primary challenges is China's historical reliance on other nations for next-generation semiconductors, stemming from a lack of necessary infrastructure. This includes a lack of foundries, trained personnel, and supply chains, all of which require substantial investment and time. To go from no foundries to next-gen foundries is a monumental step that had never been in the interest of China.
Secondly, even if China has the funding to develop semiconductors, getting access to the equipment needed to produce them is no small feat. Unfortunately for China, only one company in the world, ASML, is able to make machines capable of producing sub-7nm devices, and this company is situated in the Netherlands, a US-allied nation.
As such, trade restrictions placed on ASML prevent China from being able to access such a machine. Even if a third party were to purchase a system and then ship it into China, not only would such an operation be difficult to hide, but the sensitivity of such equipment and expertise needed to operate it would make such a mission implausible.
That isn’t to say that China can’t make 7nm devices, as recent reverse engineering on Huawei smartphones revealed that China has done just this with their latest SoCs. However, such devices have been fabricated using older hardware, meaning that wafer yields will be substantially lower compared to those made using modern ASML EUV systems, therefore making each chip far more expensive to produce.
To make matters worse, chip manufacturers such as TSMC have outright refused orders from Chinese customers. Considering that there are only a handful of cutting-edge foundries on the planet, China has no access to modern semiconductors.
China building new particle accelerator to avoid ASML hardware
A recent report from the South China Morning Post highlighted China's innovative approach towards achieving sub-7nm devices using a custom particle accelerator. China aims to revolutionise the semiconductor industry with a chip factory powered by a particle accelerator, sidestepping conventional lithographic methods.
China currently lacks an advanced tool called the EUV lithography system. In simple terms, it uses powerful light to etch designs onto chips. The leading company, ASML, achieves this by using lasers on tiny tin particles and then reflecting the light with mirrors. While this may sound simple in theory, building a functioning system takes millions of dollars in investment and obscure amounts of precision.
Groundbreaking Research and Innovations
Groundbreaking research from Tsinghua University is poised to reshape the future of global semiconductor manufacturing. Their team has demonstrated the principle of 'Steady-state microbunching', a novel particle accelerator light source, showcasing China's determination to be self-reliant in this critical sector.
Moving to solutions, Chinese researchers have proposed an alternative to traditional methods: generating EUV using a particle accelerator. Simply put, charged particles accelerated to high speeds around a particle accelerator can emit light, and if the acceleration of these particles is carefully controlled, the resulting spectrum of light can exhibit an extremely narrow bandwidth.
Unlike the EUV system developed by ASML, EUV generated by a particle accelerator is not only tuneable (due to the ability to control energy levels) but is also continuous. This means that an accelerator which is powered up can provide a consistent level of EUV light as a laser beam, allowing for more steady exposure.
China’s Advancements in the Semiconductor Sector
China's advancements in EUV lithography and the semiconductor sector signify not just a technological leap but a potential seismic shift in global tech dynamics, positioning the nation to potentially outpace global competitors. A self-reliant China could lead to a recentering of innovation and production hubs in the semiconductor industry. This could result in a reconfiguration of global supply chains, positioning China not merely as a participant but as a dominant leader. Such dominance might introduce competitive pricing models and rejuvenated research initiatives, potentially shifting market leadership. Given the critical role of semiconductors in sectors like defence and communication, these advancements could recalibrate global power dynamics, prompting leading nations to re-evaluate trade policies, forge new alliances, and engage in strategic dialogues.
So far, one major challenge faced with such an accelerator is guiding electrons into storage rings and ensuring even distribution, as this is essential for collective synchronous radiation (i.e., a consistent beam of EUV). However, recent developments by the researchers have yielded positive results in test devices and expect to produce EUV powers exceeding 1kW (by comparison, ASML systems produce around 250W of power, which eventually reduces to 5W after multiple reflections).
The proposed accelerator would also have multiple taps, allowing for simultaneous research on EUV systems and device production. Essentially, a single particle accelerator would be shared across various users, thus spreading the cost and maintenance of the system.
Have restrictions against China failed?
While the particle accelerator still requires further research, it could very well signal that the semiconductor war has backfired against the West. If the objective of semiconductor restrictions was to allow the West more time in AI advancements, then the results have been mixed, especially considering new Western restrictions on AI developments.
If the primary goal was to hinder China's semiconductor development, the results have been mixed. By restricting China’s access, the West has inadvertently spurred China to innovate and develop its own industry. This could lead to China becoming entirely independent in the semiconductor sector, which has significant implications for the global semiconductor industry. If China succeeds in this endeavour, it could shift the balance of power in the tech industry, making China a dominant player and potentially reducing the West's influence. Some argue that the West's approach has inadvertently presented China with challenges to overcome rather than dilemmas to navigate. Instead of forcing China to use one or two semiconductor foundries solely controlled by the West, it has instead given China a problem that it can clearly solve on its own.
The semiconductor battle between China and the West extends beyond technology, reflecting geopolitical dynamics. As China innovates to overcome challenges, the global tech landscape is poised for a shift. The West's restrictions may have inadvertently accelerated China's drive for self-reliance. As the dust settles, one thing is clear: the future of the semiconductor industry will be a dynamic and evolving battleground, with both sides vying for dominance in this critical sector.