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Opinion: Misplaced outrage over near-7nm SMIC chip

Business news |
By Peter Clarke


Teardown specialist TechInsights Inc. (Ottawa, Canada) has reported the existence of a chip that appears to have been made by Chinese foundry SMIC in a 7nm process, to much furore.

TechInsights states that the MinerVa Bitcoin mining chip that it has obtained appears to be made in the SMIC 7nm node and that it is the first SMIC chip on the node it has seen.

TechInsights teardown has been much reported and the cause of consternation amongst the lay readership, even though the event was fully expected by those who are informed within the semiconductor industry. This is because tape-outs of the process have been know of for a long time (see China’s Innosilicon tapes out on SMIC’s ‘nearly-7nm’ process).

Therefore, this should be seen not so much as a shock and more as milestone. Nonetheless many news outlets have expressed surprise that SMIC has been able to achieve the feat despite being the subject of a US embargo on high-end manufacturing equipment.

It has also been reported that SMIC has effectively pulled ahead of Intel Corp. in manufacturing capability and is catching up with the world leaders in manufacturing, Samsung and TSMC. Both statements are arguable. Because it has generally been considered that SMIC’s next process after 14nm although dubbed near-7nm is actually closer to 10nm.  

Also the embargo on SMIC has effectively been limited so far to extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography equipment. This would not stop SMIC making chips down to 7nm but would effectively prevent it going beyond 7nm It would also make SMIC production more expensive at 7nm because it would require such techniques as quad patterning.

EUV versus DUV

SMIC’s progress may explain why the US government is considering expanding its embargo to include deep ultraviolet lithography equipment (see US seeks to expand ban on ASML’s China sales).

Having stripped the packaging away on the MinerVa chip and examined the bare die TechInsights said the manufacturing process appears to have similarities to TSMC’s 7nm but probably has scaled logic cells but not scaled memory.

“This low-volume production product may be the stepping-stone for a true 7nm
process that incorporates scaled logic and memory bitcells,” the company said in a technical note. However, SMIC will only be able evolve the 7nm node with increasing complexity and yield issues, TechInsights concluded.

The technical note did not go into details of metal pitch or transistor structure.

Related links and articles:

www.techinsights.com

www.smics.com

News articles:

China’s Innosilicon tapes out on SMIC’s ‘nearly-7nm’ process

US seeks to expand ban on ASML’s China sales

ASML: Demand to exceed litho supply into 2023

Intel goes for RISC-V in its 7nm foundry offering


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