US policy leads ASML to release ‘poor man’s semiconductors’ for China
Dutch company ASML will develop degraded scanners to circumvent US sanctions and supply China.
Dutch company ASML intends to develop a special version of DUV semiconductor lithography scanners that will be specially adapted for the Chinese market. Such scanners will have reduced specifications and will comply with the latest US regulations, allowing them to be shipped to China without special export permits.
If the project goes ahead, Chinese chip makers such as SMIC, Hua Hong and others will be able to continue to use Dutch equipment to fabricate 28nm and older semiconductors. However, such equipment will not give them the ability to produce more advanced chips.
Specifically, we are talking about the Twinscan NXT: 1980Di system – this is the simplest scanner in the ASML line today. However, the system has NA 1.35 optics and a resolution of less than 38nm, which is sufficient for 7nm and even more advanced semiconductors. In fact, this scanner, introduced back in 2016, was used by TSMC to develop 7nm technology.
A special reduction in the quality of equipment to prevent the production of chips by SMIC and other Chinese companies up to 28 nm is quite real. Given that most of SMIC’s revenue comes from the sale of chips manufactured in technologies from 28 nm and above, it is likely that Chinese companies may be interested in buying even such tools from ASML.
The latest U.S. export restrictions require U.S. companies and citizens to obtain special export licenses for tools and technologies that can produce 3D transistor chips in 14/16nm and higher process technologies, 3D NAND memory with 128 or more layers, and DRAM- memory in accordance with technical processes up to 18 nm. The same restrictions apply to non-US businesses that use US components, including ASML’s Twinscan NXT:1980Di.
Under the new Dutch export regulations, ASML must obtain licenses to export Twinscan NXT:2000i scanners to Chinese chip manufacturers. Although ASML has not yet produced a restricted version of the hardware, if the situation with export restrictions does not change, this option may be considered.