China is making significant progress in developing advanced semiconductors even as the United States tightens export controls to contain its technological ambitions.

The country’s leading chipmaker SMIC has new production lines in Shanghai to manufacture next-generation 5-nanometer (5nm) mobile processors, reports the Financial Times. The chips are designed by technology giant Huawei as part of its homegrown Kirin line of smartphone processors.

The importance of China’s 5nm chips

The 5nm node represents a significant milestone and lags just one generation behind the cutting-edge 3nm chips from global industry leaders. The process shrinks the smallest features on computer chips to just 5 nanometers wide. It’s exceptionally difficult to do. The technology required to undertake the task successfully is expensive and bleeding edge.

Establishing volume production at this advanced node signals Beijing’s strategic goals of greater self-sufficiency in semiconductors is close to being realized.

The 5nm semiconductor chips are used for high-end smartphone processors and modems as well as artificial intelligence and high-performance computing chips, enabling more powerful and energy-efficient processors for data centers, cloud infrastructure, and specialized AI hardware. They are vital to China’s AI ambitions. 

The collaboration between SMIC and Huawei demonstrates that China’s domestic semiconductor ecosystem retains the ability to innovate at leading-edge process nodes despite U.S. efforts to stymie development through export controls.

Insiders told the Financial Times that if the new 5nm line can successfully manufacture processors for smartphones, SMIC will also produce Huawei’s highest-performance artificial intelligence chip, the Ascend 920. This would help narrow the gap with advanced AI accelerators such as Nvidia’s dominant data center GPUs.

“SMIC is facing a more significant roadblock for production expansion after the US and its alliance tightened export restrictions on advanced chipmaking gear,” said the FT’s source. “Still, the fate of China’s chip industry and its technological development in the coming years will depend on these production lines by SMIC.”

Featured image: Pexels/Ágoston Fung

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