SMIC could be working on 5nm chips for Huawei's next processor

AH Huawei MatePad 11.5 PaperMatte logo image 6 jpg.webp

Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation, the Chinese chip fabricator that makes the SoCs in Huawei phones, might be finally getting over the 7nm hurdle. According to a report from The Elec, SMIC is working on making 5nm chips using its existing deep ultra-violet (DUV) fabrication technology. While competitors have already moved to 5nm, 4nm, and even 3nm processors, SMIC has been stuck at 7nm for some time. That’s partially due to the growing political tensions between the U.S. and China, as economic sanctions have limited progress for both SMIC and Huawei.

“SMIC is preparing a 5nm process through DUV, and photomask usage is expected to increase further,” an industry official told The Elec in the report, which was translated into English. However, while other companies have made these advancements through extreme ultraviolet (EUV) chip fabrication tech, SMIC can’t take this approach. That’s because the U.S. has barred companies from working with SMIC to provide EUV machinery.

While it is possible for SMIC to reach 5nm with its existing DUV processes, it will be inefficient and expensive. “A large number of photomasks should be used compared to extreme ultraviolet (EUV) in the production of 7nm process through DUV,” the same industry official said.

Why producing 5nm chips with DUV will be costly

Microprocessing chip wafers use lithography to make integrated circuits in processors. The terms DUV and EUV refer to the types of light that can be used to produce microprocessors in each process. DUV technology comes with wavelengths that are much higher than EUV, which is why it’s harder to make more advanced chips with that process. The light used to make chips with DUV has wavelengths of 248 and 193 nm. On the other hand, light used in EUV production has a wavelength of just 13.5 nm.

Huawei has been using chips from SMIC for a while now, and the two companies have impressed despite their limitations. However, it’s hard to beat competitors like Samsung and TSMC without making advancements in fabrication technology eventually. That’s why the rumored 5nm process upgrade would be so significant. It would get SMIC a step closer to its competing chipmakers and could keep Huawei right in the smartphone race.

The Elec reports that using DUV to make 5nm chips would be wildly inefficient and expensive. However, that might not be an issue for SMIC. It is partially owned by the Chinese government, and China has aided in its effort to work around sanctions. So, SMIC might have more funding to work with than competing privately-held companies.