China’s SMIC Plays 7 nm Card

Huawei launched the Mate 60 Pro phone with a 7 nm processor fabricated in China, seemingly in contravention of Western sanctions. They did it by employing multiple-patterning lithography.
Dick James
Dick James

Last month Huawei launched the Mate 60 Pro phone. Industry rumors suspected that it would have a home-grown HiSilicon 9000s processor. Since it is Huawei’s top-of-the-line offering, media speculated that it must be at least 7nm technology, likely from Chinese foundry SMIC, to have the required performance.

TechInsights sourced the phone, performed a teardown, and confirmed that the processor employed SMIC’s second-generation 7 nm process. This has generated concern in some Western nations, because of the sanctions placed on imports of semiconductor manufacturing equipment into China, directed at limiting fab capability to the 14 nm generation or larger.

A high-profile feature of the sanctions was the ban on ASML extreme ultra-violet (EUV) lithography equipment to prevent leading-edge semiconductor processing, creating the media (and political) supposition that EUV is necessary for 7 nm and smaller nodes. In fact, TSMC and Intel have both fabricated 7 nm products without employing EUV; 193 nm immersion deep-UV (DUV) lithography is perfectly capable of 7 nm processing, although cycle times are longer and yields probably lower.

China has hailed the presence of the Kirin 9000s in the Mate 60 series as a triumph for its self-sufficiency efforts. HiSilicon, by integrating a 5G modem into the 9000s (in common with the TSMC-fabricated 5 nm Kirin 9000), is on par in features with Qualcomm Snapdragon processors and a step ahead of Apple, which still has separate modem chips.

Lithographic multipatterning can take SMIC below 7 nm to 5 nm and potentially 3 nm. There will be yield and cost penalties, but if China wants those chips for self-sufficiency and national security, its "socialist market economy" could ignore the profit motive and crank up production.

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