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Speculation mounts over Huawei’s chip-making capabilities amid US sanctions

Speculation is swirling about how far US-sanctioned Huawei Technologies can push its latest chip-making techniques to keep up with the cutting-edge designs enabled by the extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUV) machines it is unable to use, 10 months after shocking the world with a 7-nanometre-grade processor.

The Shenzhen-based telecommunications equipment giant has kept its cards close to its chest regarding its chip-making capabilities together with Semiconductor International Manufacturing Corp (SMIC). The company has never confirmed how it made the chip that powered its Mate 60 Pro last year, but the company is now turning towards a technique called self-aligned quadruple patterning (SAQP) that could help it advance even further.

Questions are now being raised about just how far that process, which relies on existing chip-making equipment in China, can be pushed while Huawei tries to cool speculation.

It was a Huawei patent application made public by China’s national intellectual property regulator in March, but filed in September 2021, that initially sparked debate about how far Huawei and SMIC could go into advanced chip-making below the 14-nm threshold set by US export controls.

The patent outlines a method of using SAQP to “increase the design freedom of circuit patterns”, which is similar to a patent granted in December to SiCarrier, a state-backed chip tool developer related to Huawei. SiCarier’s patent describes a way of producing chips on a 5-nm process node using deep ultraviolet lithography (DUV) tools, the Post reported in April. DUV is less advanced than EUV, but China has been stockpiling equipment since last year to deal with more stringent export restrictions.

One Huawei executive tried to cool off speculation about its chip-making capabilities in April. Huawei Cloud CEO Zhang Pingan said at a conference hosted by China Mobile that the company will focus on chip architecture instead of processing grades.

“We definitely can’t get 3-nm or 5-nm, and it is very very good if we can solve 7-nm,” Zhang said. Text and video of his speech were widely shared on Chinese social media.

A Taiwan-based semiconductor engineer, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter, said the SAQP technique can support 5-nm or even 3-nm designs, but it is a complicated process that involves “lots of possibilities for error”.

Chen Yijian, a research scientist at Westlake University, wrote in a LinkedIn post earlier this year that an immersion DUV lithography scanner can enable a process close to Intel’s 14A logic process, which is expected to be launched in 2027 with a node grade of 1.3-nm. Chen wrote on his LinkedIn profile that he previously led next-generation logic chip development at HiSilicon, Huawei’s chip-design unit.

Chen did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

Since the launch of its Mate 60 series smartphones last year, Huawei’s progress in semiconductors has been closely watched. The company’s more recent Pura 70 series runs on chips made from the same 7-nm process as the Mate 60 chip, according to teardown reports.

The two phones have become emblematic of how far China is pushing the boundaries of its capabilities in a relentless drive to break free of reliance on foreign technology.

Huawei is a key player in China’s chip self-reliance efforts, and is working with multiple players in China’s semiconductor supply chain to achieve new breakthroughs.

Multiple patterning technologies date back to the early 2000s. These techniques help advance chip making by using additional exposures of small features such as transistor gates to improve resolution, something that would otherwise require more advanced equipment.

Analysts and fab engineers have pointed out that multiple patterning technology is China’s path to advancing its chip making beyond the 5-nm level without EUV scanners. Netherlands-based ASML, which has a virtual monopoly on the machines, has been barred from shipping EUV equipment to China since 2019. South China Morning Post

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