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The “most complicated machine” of the technological cold war beyond China’s reach

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SAN FRANCISCO – President Biden and many lawmakers in Washington are concerned these days about computer chips and China’s ambitions with foundational technology.

But a huge machine sold by a Dutch company has become a key lever for policymakers – and illustrates how unrealistic any country’s hopes of building a completely self-sufficient supply chain in semiconductor technology are.

The machine is manufactured by ASML Holding, based in Veldhoven. His system uses a different type of light to define ultra-small circuits on the chips, providing more performance in small silicon wafers. The tool, which took decades to develop and was introduced for high-volume manufacturing in 2017, costs more than $ 150 million. Shipping it to customers requires 40 shipping containers, 20 trucks, and three Boeing 747s.

The complex machine is widely recognized as necessary to manufacture the most advanced chips, a capability with geopolitical implications. The Trump administration managed to put pressure on the Dutch government block shipments of such a machine to China in 2019, and the Biden administration has shown no signs of reversing that position.

Manufacturers cannot produce advanced chips without the system, and “it is only made by the Dutch company ASML,” said Will Hunt, research analyst at the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University. , who concluded that it would take China at least a decade to build its own similar equipment. “From China’s perspective, it’s a frustrating thing. “

ASML’s machine has effectively turned into a choke point in the supply chain for chips, which act as the brains of computers and other digital devices. The development and production of the tool on three continents – using expertise and parts from Japan, the United States and Germany – is also a reminder of how global this supply chain is, providing verification reality for any country wishing to take a leap forward in semiconductors itself.

That includes not only China but the United States, where Congress is debating plans to spend more than $ 50 billion to reduce reliance on foreign chipmakers. Many branches of the federal government, especially the Pentagon, have expressed concern about the United States’ dependence on Taiwan’s main chipmaker and the island’s proximity to China.

A study This spring, the Boston Consulting Group and the Semiconductor Industry Association estimated that creating a self-sustaining chip supply chain would cost at least $ 1,000 billion and sharply increase the prices of chips and products made with them.

That goal is “completely unrealistic” for anyone, said Willy Shih, a Harvard Business School management professor who studies supply chains. ASML’s technology “is a prime example of why you have global business.”

The situation underscores the crucial role played by ASML, a once obscure company whose market value now exceeds $ 285 billion. It’s “the biggest company you’ve never heard of,” said CJ Muse, analyst at Evercore ISI.

Established in 1984 by electronics giant Philips and another tool maker, Advanced Semiconductor Materials International, ASML has grown into an independent company and by far the largest supplier of chip-making equipment that involves a process called lithography.

Using lithography, manufacturers repeatedly project chip circuit patterns onto silicon wafers. The more tiny transistors and other components can be added to an individual chip, the more powerful it becomes and the more data it can store. The pace of this miniaturization is known as Moore’s Law, named after Gordon Moore, co-founder of chip giant Intel.

In 1997, ASML began to study a transition to the use extreme ultraviolet light, or EUV. Such light has ultra-small wavelengths which can create much smaller circuits than is possible with conventional lithography. The company then decided to make machines based on this technology, an effort that has cost $ 8 billion since the late 1990s.

The development process quickly globalized. ASML now assembles the advanced machines using German mirrors and hardware developed in San Diego that generates light by projecting tin droplets with a laser. The main chemicals and components come from Japan.

Peter Wennink, managing director of ASML, said that a lack of money in the early years of the company led it to incorporate inventions from specialist vendors, creating what he calls a “knowledge network. collaborative ”which innovates quickly.

“We have been forced not to do on our own what others do better,” he said.

ASML relied on other international cooperation. In the early 1980s, researchers in the United States, Japan and Europe began to consider the radical change in light sources. The concept was picked up by a consortium that included Intel and two other US chipmakers, as well as Department of Energy labs.

ASML joined us in 1999 after more than a year of negotiations, said Martin van den Brink, President and CTO of ASML. Other partners of the company included the Imec research center in Belgium and another American consortium, Sematech. ASML then attracted significant investment from Intel, Samsung Electronics, and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company to help fund the development.

This development was made trickier by the quirks of extreme ultraviolet light. Lithography machines typically focus light through lenses to project circuit patterns onto wafers. But the small EUV wavelengths are absorbed by the glass, so the lenses will not work. Mirrors, another common tool for directing light, have the same problem. This meant that the new lithography required mirrors with complex coatings that combined to better reflect small wavelengths.

ASML therefore turned to Zeiss Group, a 175-year-old German optics company and long-time partner. His contributions included a two-ton projection system to handle extreme ultraviolet light, with six specially shaped mirrors that are ground, polished, and coated for several months in an elaborate robotic process that uses ion beams to remove defects.

Generating enough light to quickly project images also caused delays, van den Brink said. But Cymer, a San Diego company bought by ASML in 2013, ultimately improved a system that directs pulses from a high-powered laser to strike tin droplets 50,000 times per second – once to flatten them and one time. second time to spray them – to create intense light.

The new system also required redesigned components called photomasks, which act like stencils in projecting circuit designs, as well as new chemicals deposited on wafers that generate these images when exposed to light. Japanese companies now supply most of these products.

Since ASML introduced its EUV business model in 2017, customers have purchased around 100. Buyers include Samsung and TSMC, the largest service producing chips designed by other companies. TSMC uses the tool to manufacture processors designed by Apple for its latest iPhones. Intel and IBM have said the UVV is crucial to their plans.

“It is certainly the most complicated machine humans have built,” said Darío Gil, senior vice president of IBM.

The Dutch restrictions on the export of these machines to China, which have been in place since 2019, have not had much financial impact on ASML as it has a backlog of orders from other countries. But about 15% of the company’s sales come from the sale of older systems in China.

In a final report to Congress and Mr Biden in March, the National Artificial Intelligence Safety Commission proposed extending export controls to other advanced ASMLs. machines too. The congress-funded group seeks to limit advances in artificial intelligence with military applications.

Mr Hunt and other political experts argued that since China was already using these machines, blocking additional sales would hurt ASML without much strategic advantage. The company too.

“I hope that common sense will prevail,” said Mr van den Brink.


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