China ‘will be self-sufficient in 28nm chips in two years’

10 November 2020 | Staff Writer

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The Chinese semiconductor industry, with government help, is working hard to ensure it has all it needs to survive without foreign support, says a consultant with the China Semiconductor Industry Association.

[Image courtesy of CCIDnet: Li Ke, China Semiconductor Industry Association]

China’s chip manufacturing is exceeding expectations and will usher in opportunities for a domestic industrial chain. This is what Li Ke (pictured) of the China Semiconductor Industry Association (CSIA) says about the country’s rapidly developing industry.

According to Li, after years of development, China’s integrated circuit (IC) industry has made considerable progress. Last year, it generated over CNY750 billion (US$115 billion) in revenue and is expected to reach CNY900 billion this year.

Though the entire semiconductor industry has developed, IC manufacturing has progressed the most. For instance, China’s IC production capacity last year was more than 20% of the world’s total and more than any other country.

In the past half year, progress in domestic chip manufacturing technologies has exceeded the CSIA’s expectations, says Li. “We’ve seen breakthroughs in millimetre-wave 5G chips, monopolies disbanded, and the success of the self-developed 7nm chip from China’s Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation (SMIC).” Technological advancements will help IC production move to mainland China, says Li, “and a domestic chip manufacturing industry chain is likely to emerge with the support of policies for industries”.

He says the progress in China’s IC industry in recent years has come from the progress in its market. The mainland has seen continuous breakthroughs in IC manufacturing as well as significant progress in R&D and industrialisation of major processes with the division of applications.

The gap between mainland China’s IC manufacturing technologies and world-leading technologies is narrowing, laying a solid foundation for the prominence of its IC industry.

Transferring production capacity to mainland China poses new opportunities for the local IC industry – and building new fabrication plants (fabs) there – will grow the IC industry domestically through lower costs, expanded production and simplified logistics, says Li, who has over 10 years of experience as an analyst. His research involves industry and information technology developments in China, with a focus on sectors such as semiconductor, basic electronics, high-end equipment, and alternative energy.

“Moreover, the IC industry is a strategic industry, vital to economic and social development, and is at the core of the electronic information industry,” he says. “China has introduced several policies in recent years to empower the IC industry through a market-oriented approach.”

China’s 28nm chip industry is localising faster, and mass production is expected in one to two years. “Currently, China’s IC manufacturing production capacity is dominated by low-end production,” says Li.

He says 28nm is the dividing line between low and mid-range IC manufacturing and the mid-to-high end. China desperately needs to move towards the mid-to-high end chip production, and being able to produce 28nm chips means it can meet most of the demand for chips without relying on others, he says.

28nm – the figure in nanometres is the dimension used to design the latest chips – has clear advantages and is key to developing IC processes. “It performs much better than its predecessors though costing roughly the same to produce,” says Li. “For example, compared with the 40nm technology, 28nm has a higher gate density and its transistors are about 50% faster, while using half the power. The economic and technical aspects of 28nm will keep it a mainstream mid-end process for a long time.”

On 4 August China’s State Council issued its new policies for facilitating the high-quality development of the IC industry and software industry. This policy in part outlines new tax incentives for fabs and companies that use 28nm – or smaller – technologies.

The new strategy includes tax advantages for using the newest chip technology. The rule says: “Qualified integrated circuit projects or enterprises that have operated for more than 15 years shall be exempt from corporate income tax for the first 10 years if they employ the 28nm process or more advanced nodes.”

According to Li, there are two obstacles to mid-to-high-end IC production: semiconductor equipment and strategic materials. After more than a decade, China has a presence at every part of the 28nm-technology industry chain.

There are Chinese companies all across the equipment sector, such as wafer manufacturing, lithography, etching, cleaning, and testing. The same is true for the strategic materials – Chinese companies are involved in every major aspect, including special gases and high-purity reagents. This lays the foundation for a move towards mid-to-high-end production.

At present, Chinese companies with 28nm or smaller fabs include HLMC and CXMT, and companies whose equipment can be used in 28nm or smaller wafer production lines include Hwatsing, Piotech, Shengmei Semiconductor, NAURA Technology, AMEC, Kingsemi, E-Town Semiconductor, Zhongkexin, RSIC and Semitronix.

In 2018, NAURA Technology produced and sold China’s first atomic layer deposition (ALD) system that supports 28nm to 14nm FinFET technology. Shanghai Micro Electronics Equipment announced that they would deliver China’s first homegrown immersion lithography machine for 28nm technology. Medium-current ion implanters by Shuoke Zhongkexin are now as advanced as their foreign counterparts, and have been mass produced. And, the company’s high-current ion implanters now support technology down to 28nm.

“Overall, China already has the ability to mass produce 28nm chips completely on its own,” says Li. “Specifically, some companies have made great progress in R&D, while others have even had their products applied to production lines in China.”
He adds: “Breakthroughs have been made in China in some segments, such as AMEC’s medium-based etching technology, which is one of the most advanced in the world.”

It is worth mentioning, he says, “that both national-level projects and enterprises’ joint efforts are advancing in key parts of China’s 28nm chip industry chain such as lithography machines.”

Bai Chunli, the president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), has said that CAS would concentrate on the technologies that China is most concerned about, which include lithography machines.

Li notes: “This means that China’s governmental organisations will help the domestic chip industry in tackling the challenges chip manufacturers face.”

He adds: “With breakthroughs in key technologies, we believe that entirely Chinese 28nm chips, unfettered by foreign restrictions, will be mass produced in one or two years. China will have a completely domestic industry chain and become independent in chip manufacturing. By then, China’s integrated circuit industry will have advanced dramatically.”