In a massive windfall for its domestic semiconductor industry, China has unveiled plans to build a giant particle accelerator to assist in the production of semiconductors.
Recent reports suggest the world’s second largest economy is preparing to build a 150-metre facility that will use electron beams to produce the important chips – essential for everything from credit cards, electronic appliances, motor vehicles and smartphones.
Researchers from Beijing-based Tsinghua University and officials from the Xiong’an New Area, a newly established development hub roughly 100 kilometres south of the capital, are in active discussions surrounding the location for the megaproject, according to the South China Morning Post.
China, which has seen itself as the target of US sanctions, particularly in strategic industries such as semiconductors, has prioritised self-reliance in these sectors.
Advanced Semiconductor Materials Lithography (ASML), a Dutch tech multinational and a leader in the production and supply of microchips, has traditionally preferred scaling down chip-making machinery and infrastructure for export purposes.
Lithography devices are some of the most cutting-edge pieces of technology to come out of the 20th century. The complex machines use extreme ultra-violet (EUV) light waves, which have a minute wavelength of 13.5 nanometres, to fabricate some of the world’s most sophisticated 7-nanometre chips.
ASML owns the patent to EUV lithography machines and has a near-monopoly on the market as a result.
Contrary to ASML, Chinese researchers and lawmakers have opted to centralise manufacturing around a single, massive facility powered by just one particle accelerator. Officials are hopeful the idea will facilitate low-cost, high-volume production of advanced and domestically engineered microchips.
China has been researching alternatives to EUV lithography machines since 2017. It centres around the development of an alternate luminescence mechanism known as steady-state microbunching (SSMB), first theorized by Stanford professor, Zhao Wu and his student Daniel Ratner in 2010.
Put simply, SSMB harnesses the energy released by charged particles in acceleration and focuses them into a constant light source characterised by its narrow bandwidth and limited scattering angle, resulting in a constant stream of EUV light.
The light emitted from charged particles in a state of acceleration produces some of the most intense artificial light known to science, according to SCMP.
According to Zhao, SSMB sources produce a continuous stream of light with high average power, unlike the pulsing effect given off by free electron lasers.
SSMB laser beams are more effective at conserving energy than the EUV system and this, according to the Chinese team working on the project, may prove pivotal in the race to develop microchips as small as 2-3 nanometres.
SSMB theory was successfully demonstrated at the Berlin-based, Metrological Light Source laboratories in 2019, with the results published in a 2021 issue of the peer-reviewed science journal, Nature.
Establishing a working SSMB-based lithography machine could go a long way to making China end its reliance on the now sanctioned internationally manufactured EUV machines, according to a leading member of the research unit, Professor Pan Zhilong. It will also help the country in other fields of research, such as biochemistry and physics.