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Beijing's Semiconductor Self-Sufficiency Ambitions Will Get Boosted By 28nm Chipmaking Machine

State-run media have reported that China will debut its first homegrown 28-nanometer lithography machine by the end of this year.

A lithography machine is an essential piece of semiconductor manufacturing equipment used to produce patterns on silicon wafers.

In light of US-led semiconductor equipment export restrictions, Beijing's pursuit of technological self-sufficiency throughout the entire chipmaking value chain will receive a significant boost from this development.

The Shanghai Micro Electronics Equipment Group (SMEE) is likely to introduce a 28 nm immersion lithography machine, and the first domestically manufactured SSA/800-10W lithography machine is scheduled to reach the market by the end of 2023.

SMEE, founded in 2002, is one of China's leading manufacturers of lithography machines, accounting for approximately 80% of the domestic market.

According to SMEE's website, the company has developed machines capable of producing processors at the 90 nm node standard - a technology suitable for the production of low-end chips.

The lithography procedure entails using light to transfer a pattern from a mask (also known as a photomask or reticle) to the wafer's surface. The lithography equipment projects the pattern from the mask onto the wafer, thereby defining the integrated circuit's characteristics. The precision and accuracy of the lithography machine have a direct effect on the scale and complexity of the chip's components.

Advanced Micro Fabrication Equipment Company is another notable Chinese company that manufactures etching devices for advanced chipmaking.

China relies heavily on advanced DUVs manufactured by the Dutch semiconductor equipment manufacturer ASML, which has already denied Chinese clients access to its extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography machinery.

In July of this year, the Dutch government imposed additional restrictions on chip-making apparatus exports to China from ASML. Previously, the Netherlands restricted exports of extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography apparatus necessary for the production of advanced semiconductors.

ASML is a vital supplier to semiconductor manufacturing giants such as Intel, Samsung Electronics Co., and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC). Japanese competitors such as Canon have a negligible market share compared to ASML. As of 2021, it controls more than 90 percent of the $17.1 billion global lithography equipment market.

ASML's EUV-based devices use light to etch ultra-small circuitry on chips, allowing more performance to be packed into the wafer's thin slices. The machines emanate light with wavelengths one-fifteenth as small as conventional chipmaking equipment, allowing for the etching of finer circuits and the squeezing of more transistors onto a chip. The patterns connect to form a singular integrated circuit with computing or memory capabilities.

In 1997, ASML, which was founded in 1984 as a joint venture between the Dutch companies Advanced Semiconductor Materials International (ASMI) and Philips, began developing the EUV system.

China accounts for 15% of ASML's sales, and export restrictions could severely hamper the ambitions of Chinese chipmakers. ASML has sold equipment worth billions of dollars to Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation (SMIC), a prominent Chinese semiconductor manufacturer.

To achieve semiconductor self-sufficiency, Beijing has long pursued an ambitious plan to create a world-class domestic chip industry to wean itself off imports -- an endeavour that would require ASML's unique EUV machines.

Japan, home to chip tool manufacturers Nikon and Tokyo Electron, announced in July that it will restrict exports to China of 23 categories of advanced chip-related equipment and materials, including lithography systems.

The export restrictions were perceived as an effort by semiconductor alliances led by the United States to maintain their strategic advantage in the chipmaking equipment industry.

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