The US Government has successfully prevented SMIC (China Semiconductor) from buying 5nm equipment from the Dutch company ASML. Security concerns are cited as the reason for the embargo

Reports have surfaced that SMIC has 7nm fabrication technology.


Having worked in the semiconductor industry, I expect that SMIC can develop 5nm tech without ASML.

Given SMIC's 7nm production capability: What exactly is the 5nm application that would justify the ASML equipment embargo?

  • 5
    I don't get the question. SMIC don't have 5nm tech. AMSL do have it. The US wants to delay China having 5nm tech. That answers the question. The question seems to be off topic, since it is asking about technology applications.
    – James K
    Oct 16, 2022 at 20:31
  • I think there is a good question here, and suggest a slight rewrite. Remove the "I expect..." bit since it's your own speculation, not necessary for the question and overall a non sequitur. Instead, just ask "What exactly is the 5 nm application that would justify the ASML equipment embargo, since SMIC reportedly already has 7 nm fabrication technology?" This asks specifically about the embargo and calls into question its effectiveness and impact, and can be answered from the political point of view of politicians who are calling for this particular embargo based on facts and statements.
    – uhoh
    Oct 17, 2022 at 1:44
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    Having seen your latest highlighting I wonder why you think that there is a specific 5 nm application that would justify the embargo? I have the idea that the US simply tries to keep a technological edge in chip manufacturing over China. On a similar effort to block high tech chips being exported to China "the US has said it fears its tech will be adapted for military purposes". ft.com/content/ebcac5e4-f45d-418f-a617-95f1a944bc73 So maybe this can be seen as some sort of general application? Oct 17, 2022 at 14:36
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    Note that for the last few years, nanometer measurements have become less objective. It used to be simple: at 130 nm, everything was pretty much laid out on a 130nm grid. At 7 nm, only some things on a chip are 7 nm. As a result, "7nm" is marketing, and so is "5nm." But DUV and EUV are radically different. DUV uses 193 nm UV light, EUV is 13.5 nm. That's more than a tenfold step.
    – MSalters
    Oct 18, 2022 at 13:35
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    I don't know how much of the 'SMIC has 7nm' is actually their own technology. I would assume there where allowed to buy from ASML until very recently so possibly this just means SMIC has the previous generation of ASML machines but they are not allowed to buy the new generation.
    – quarague
    Oct 18, 2022 at 19:51

2 Answers 2


Indeed it seems that despite equipment embargo SMIC has managed to get to smaller and smaller fabrication technology and even mastering 7nm processes. However according to this further reduction using the common UV light sources is getting increasingly difficult. That is because fundamentally a technology change towards an EUV light source is needed to achieve those further reductions.

Developing EUV technology according to this source took ASML 4 decades. Having managed to develop this technology is the reason that ASML today is considered as an industry leader. The former dominant companies Canon and Nikon considered EUV too difficult and stopped its development. According to this a reliable EUV source is difficult to built and also all matter absorbs EUV. So the whole light path has to be kept in vacuum and all optical elements need to be built from defect-free molybdenum/silicon (Mo/Si) multilayers.

In the end SMIC probably won't need 4 decades to build an EUV machine, but I think it is safe to say that it will take some time.

Preventing Chinese companies from building smaller chips apparently seems beneficial for the US as they are probably afraid of all the applications smaller and therefore more powerful chips can bring. On the other hand thereby shielding a company from competition and forcing China to search for creative alternatives might also have downsides.


IBM demonstrated decades ago that they could position individual atoms. The question isn't whether SMIC can produce at 7nm, 5nm or even 2 nm. The real question is whether they can do it in volume, at reasonable prices.

DUV (the old technology) uses 193 nm UV light. To achieve resolutions smaller than that, the most common trick is to just repeatedly use the same mask, shifted over a few nanometers. Initially this was done twice, then three times, and by 14 nm companies were doing 4 shifts. And these 4 shifts needed to be done for every layer on the chip, so it really added up.

Now there's no technical limit to 4 steps. Just like razorblades, you can go to 5 steps, it's just getting a bit silly. SMIC might have even used 7 or 8 steps to achieve 7nm; we can't tell.

Note that in addition to the sheer time it costs, you also have defect risks with this multi-patterning. We don't know how many of those "7nm DUV" chips actually work. This obviously impacts the price; if you have to discard 90% of the dies then the remaining 10% become ten times as expensive.

  • I think this answer is missing nuance because you are comparing IBM to SMIC. SMIC isn't making 2nm transistors because none of their customers want them. SMIC doesn't design chips, it manufacturers chips that other companies design. When these companies can make feasible designs at 2nm, then they look for factories that can actually make the chips they design. Since SMIC is just a factory, they normally would just buy factory equipment from a producer like ASML. Since they can no longer do that, they not only lose all of the revenue from customers with that requirement, but also have to make
    – uberhaxed
    Oct 18, 2022 at 19:45
  • ... a risky new business line to make factory equipment (and they are in the business of making chips, not machines so the expertise is not there). Not to mention this is generally a difficult problem to solve in the engineering world (which is why it takes so long to do).
    – uberhaxed
    Oct 18, 2022 at 19:46

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