Scientists who have contributed to the cutting-edge technology behind advanced semiconductors are divided on whether the United States should stop China from developing its own chips.
The US has blocked the sale of extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUVL) machines to the Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation (SMIC), China’s largest chip foundry.
EUVL, which uses a powerful laser and a system of complex mirrors to etch integrated circuits on silicon wafers, is essential to producing modern chips, which go into everything – from cell phones and electric cars to next-generation fighter jets.
The Netherlands-based ASML controls the entire EUVL market. SMIC had placed orders to purchase the machines, which cost $200 million a piece, but Washington blocked the delivery.
“I never believed there would be a land war in Europe. But then Russia attacked Ukraine,” David N. Ruzic, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, tells TRT World.
“Taiwan is threatened by China. All of a sudden you see one country invading another and you say ‘can this happen there?’”
China considers Taiwan an integral part of its territory.
US President Joe Biden on September 19 said American forces will defend Taiwan if threatened by the Chinese military, heightening geopolitical tensions between the two largest economies.
“If you can make the best chips in the world, you can use them to make the best military hardware in the world," says Professor Ruzic.
In case of a potential conflict, the US wouldn’t want China to get hold of tools that can be utilised to build military applications, he says.
Professor Ruzic works closely with ASML and has recently developed an efficient and cheaper way to clean plasma debris off the sensitive mirrors in EUVL machines – a headache for the industry.
Whose technology is it anyway?
EUVL machines have been three decades in the making. Each one of them is the size of a bus and contains hundreds of thousands of components. The CO2 laser beam that can generate plasma 40 times hotter than the Sun’s surface is viewed by scientists as an engineering marvel.
It is also a product of collaboration between researchers and academics from different countries. But most of the work took place in the US labs backed by American taxpayers’ money, says Vivek Bakshi, President of EUV Litho, a company that promotes industry cooperation.
“The most critical EUVL machine parts such as the optics and the laser source were developed in the US,” he tells TRT World.
In the 1990s, Bakshi, an India-born physicist, worked at SEMATECH, which was a US government initiative to divide the cost of semiconductor research between chipmakers such as Intel, AMD and Texas Instruments.
Back then, ASML, Nikon and Canon were the dominant players in the photolithography market. Over the years, the Dutch firm beat its Japanese competition by acquiring specialised equipment makers in the US.
In 2001, ASML bought the lithography optics business from Tinsley, transferring the science of polishing the mirrors to Europe and then in 2011 it took over Cymer, which was at the top of cutting-edge laser technology.
President Biden’s administration has doubled down on efforts to bring technology firms back to the US. In August, he signed the CHIPS and Science Act, which aims to spend $52 billion on research and development of semiconductors.
A few months back, China’s SMIC surprised industry watchers by developing chips on 7-nanometer nodes despite lacking ASML’s EUVL machines.
It was able to do that using an earlier technology called deep ultraviolet or DUV and by deploying a cumbersome technique known as multi-patterning in which tiny transistors are stacked on top of each other.
But SMIC won’t be able to produce 7nm chips in large numbers without EUVL machines, says Bakshi.
“A 7nm chip is not like a nuclear weapon that you can make just once and be happy about it. You have to make millions and millions of chips and make sure you have the yield.”
Bakshi says he does not have any specific view on Washington’s bid to stop China from climbing up the technological ladder.
“Scientists like myself have no opinion in that area. We work on technical topics.”
Technology has no border
Japanese scientist Hiroo Kinoshita, who performed the first EUV experiment in the mid-1980s, says Beijing has an equal right to pursue modern technology.
“Of course, I could not understand that decision. Science has no border,” he says when asked about the US blocking ASML sales to China.
The US-China economic showdown stems from the race to dominate the 5G market where Chinese firm Huawei has taken the lead, he tells TRT World.
Kinoshita has had firsthand experience of what happens when a political standoff comes in the way of technological development.
“When Japan became the leader in semiconductors, especially in the memory chip segment, Japan-US semiconductor friction broke out.
“NTT Laboratories (the Japanese version of Bell Labs) where I was working, had to stop semiconductor development. After that, Japanese semiconductor development declined,” he says.
“Therefore, I believe that scientific and technological competition should be free (of political roadblocks).”