Dutch company ASML is considering releasing a special version of scanners for semiconductor DUV lithography, designed specifically for shipments to China. Such artificially “degraded” instruments comply with the latest US restrictions and can be shipped to China without a special export permit.
If the project goes ahead, SMIC, Hua Hong and other Chinese semiconductor companies can continue to use equipment from the Netherlands to make chips in 28nm and more mature processes. At the same time, the equipment will not allow the production of more modern chips.
In particular, we are talking about the Twinscan NXT: 1980Di lithography system – today it is the company’s least efficient model in the line manufactured by ASML. However, the system supports NA 1.35 optics and offers a resolution of <38 nm. This is particularly sufficient for the production of 7 nm and even more modern semiconductors. In fact, TSMC's scanner, launched back in 2016, was used to develop the 7nm process.
Artificial hardware degradation to prevent SMIC and other Chinese companies from launching chips up to 28nm is entirely possible. At the same time, SMIC generates the lion’s share of its revenue from the sale of chips manufactured using technologies from 28 nm upwards, so Chinese companies may well be interested in purchasing such tools from ASML.
The latest US export restrictions require US companies and individuals to obtain special export licenses to provide tools and technologies that enable non-planar (3D) transistor chips in 14/16nm and higher process technologies, 3D NAND memory with 128 or larger Layers and DRAM can be fabricated according to manufacturing processes down to 18nm memory. The same limitations apply to non-US companies using US components such as ASML’s Twinscan NXT:1980Di.
The latest Dutch export regulations require ASML to obtain export licenses to supply Twinscan NXT:2000i scanners to Chinese manufacturers. Although ASML has not yet released a version of the equipment with limited capabilities, production of such variants is very likely if export restrictions are further tightened.