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China's largest chipmaker, the Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation (SMIC) has copied the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company's (TSMC) chipmaking designs for the 7-nanometer chip manufacturing technology according to a research report quoted by the Taiwanese press. SMIC's 7nm process, which first surfaced in 2020, has made it into a Bitcoin mining computer, which was torn down by TechInsights earlier this week to confirm that the company has started producing semiconductors with the advanced technologies, allowing it to catch up with the world's largest chipmakers such as U.S. giant Intel Corporation, TSMC and Samsung Foundry. Soon afterward, reports in the Taiwanese press surfaced stating that SMIC's designs mirror those of TSMC and that the company will still find it hard to move beyond 7nm.
SMIC's 7nm Bitcoin Miner Shocks Industry Yet Questions Remain For Yield & Production Capacity
The nature of the chipmaking process, which requires printing tiny circuits on a piece of silicon requires advanced machines that are capable of using certain wavelengths of light if a company is to advance its technologies. These machines use extreme ultraviolet light to print the tiny circuits and are manufactured only by the Dutch company ASML, which ends up limiting the amount that chipmakers can order for themselves.
The 7nm technology was first introduced in 2016 and as time passed, TSMC, along with others started to use EUV machines for certain portions of the entire manufacturing process. Now, with the Taiwanese fab gearing up to mass produce its 3nnm process technology, the Taiwanese press is claiming that SMIC has copied its 7nm designs.
A report from the United Daily News (UDN) cites images from a recent TechInsights report to state that the 7nm chips built by SMIC are virtually the same as those built by TSMC. The Bitcoin miner in which these chips were found is from the American company MinerVa.
The chip in question is the MinerVa 7 processor which is capable of delivering 105 tera-hashes (TH) per second with a power consumption of 3,300 Watts according to the company. SMIC has abstained from providing public details about its chipmaking technologies, and the MinerVa 7 is the first 7nm product from the company that has come to light.
However, as several researchers and industry insiders quoted by UDN also explain, while SMIC's manufacturing of a 7nm product is impressive, the company is unlikely to progress to advanced technologies such as 5nm and 3nm without gaining access to the EUV machines. In the high end chip manufacturing world, Intel, TSMC and Samsung have progressed beyond the first generation EUV machines to get their hands on those with wider lenses. These machines, dubbed High-NA (numeric aperture) end up improving the resolution at which the companies can print their circuits and as a result improve yield.
Details for SMIC's 7nm process first came to light in 2020 when a disgruntled executive wrote a strongly worded letter to the company's management. In the letter, he outlined that the company is on track to move ahead with 7nm risk and mass production in April of 2021. He also shared progress for the 5nm and 3nm technologies and outlined that "8 most critical and most difficult technologies of 5nm and 3nm have also been carried out in an orderly manner."
Judging by his words alone, the Chinese company might surprise everyone yet again by quietly manufacturing 5nm and 3nm products. However, the letter came before fresh pressure was levied by the U.S. government on ASML to stop selling SMIC EUV machines earlier this year. Industry experts also believe that while SMIC's 7nm progress is impressive, the cmpany's yield and production rate will remain questionable as even 7nm manufacturing requires EUV for some levels. Reports in the media have also suggested that SMIC lost a key executive last year for failing to procure these machines.