Congressmen ask Biden admin to keep chip design software away from China

Congressmen ask Biden admin to keep chip design software away from China
China News Service | Getty Images

Don’t let American companies sell semiconductor design software to Chinese firms, two members of Congress are asking the Department of Commerce. 

Sen. Tom Cotton (R- Ark.) and Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) yesterday requested that electronic design automation (EDA) tools be designated as “foundational technologies” by the Department of Commerce. The label would require companies to obtain export licenses if they want to sell EDA tools to Chinese companies. The congressmen also requested in their letter to Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo that any fab worldwide that uses American tools be prevented from selling 14 nm or better chips to Chinese companies.

The current leading edge in semiconductors is the 5 nm node, and currently, only Samsung and Taiwanese semiconductor company TSMC are producing chips commercially at that node. Restricting Chinese companies to 16 nm or larger could possibly keep them four generations off the leading edge. 

Semiconductors are incredibly important to China, which imported more than $300 billion worth of chips last year. That’s more than the country spends on imported oil. 

If the US government were to cut Chinese companies off from EDA tools, it would be a significant blow to the country’s already lagging semiconductor industry. Chinese semiconductor manufacturers are almost entirely reliant on foreign tools and software, and the country’s own EDA software is eight to ten years behind. There are EDA companies based outside the US, but American firms are particularly dominant, with companies like Cadence Design Systems and Synopsys controlling around 90 percent of the market, according to some estimates.

Stuck behind

The Chinese semiconductor market has always been behind the leading edge, though it has caught up in recent years as companies like SMIC have recruited heavily from TSMC and Samsung. The company has been producing chips at 14 nm in decent numbers, and last year it announced its “N+1” node, which it says is 57 percent more efficient and 20 percent faster. But yields on that new process are reportedly low, and it likely represents a dead-end unless SMIC can obtain an extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUV) machine from photolithography company ASML.

EUV is all but required to produce semiconductors at 5 nm or below. The technology uses 13.5 nm UV light to etch features on a wafer. Existing deep ultraviolet tools (DUV) use 193 nm light. Even with the clever hacks the industry has implemented to make DUV work at smaller nodes, yields below 7 nm using DUV would be too low to be commercially viable. 

It’s unlikely that SMIC will ever get its hands on ASML’s most advanced machine, though. SMIC placed an order for an EUV machine in 2018, but that order has been held up by government officials in the Netherlands, where ASML is based. The US government began pressuring Dutch officials to halt the sale almost immediately after the order was placed, and a year and a half ago, the US, the Netherlands, and Japan (where Canon is another potential supplier of advanced lithography tools) entered into an ad-hoc agreement not to sell advanced chipmaking equipment to China. 

Cotton and McCaul’s request to bar China from obtaining advanced EDA software would further stymie China’s ambitions. As semiconductor manufacturing has grown ever more sophisticated, the tools required to produce chips have advanced apace. Barring China from obtaining EUV likely would set the country back a decade or more. The Chinese government is spending over $1 trillion to catapult its semiconductor industry to the leading edge, but it still faces headwinds. For example, it took ASML more than a decade before its EUV tools were ready to be inserted into customers’ production lines. Restricting Chinese companies’ access to EDA tools would only add to their already significant challenges.