Intel is rallying against an expected U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) decision to ban imports of a crucial semiconductor manufacturing compound. The compound - known as chemical mechanical planarization slurries - is sold under the name Optiplane, and is manufactured by DuPont's Rohm & Haas units in Taiwan and Japan. According to Bloomberg, DuPont was recently accused of infringing on patents held by Illinois-based CMC Materials Inc. Should the ban materialize, Intel says that the already critical semiconductor shortages will only worsen.
CMC Materials' legal action stands at the heart of the USITC's investigation into whether or not it should ban U.S. imports of the compound. The commission expected to announce a decision on the case yesterday, but a last-minute announcement postponed it until December 16th. Tying Intel's worries about the ban with the delay itself would be, at this point, mere speculation.
These planarization slurries are an indispensable step in semiconductor manufacturing. They are used in various steps of the arduous, months-long process of wafer fabrication. They're essentially used to polish the wafer's surface in-between manufacturing stages, and according to Intel, "subtle variations between them have outsized impacts in a fabrication environment."
Given the extremely delicate nature of the semiconductor manufacturing process, any change - even a change in the slurry provider - can have a disproportionate impact on semiconductor yields. It also seems plausible that Intel would have to invest a non-zero amount of resources towards integrating a new solution to its manufacturing lines.
But Intel went even further in its appeal to the commission; the company said that "banning Optiplane slurries from U.S.-based semiconductor chip fabrication lines without a 24-month transition period could conflict with national security and economic interests." Moreover, it seems that the company is worried about the possibility of a "slurry supply shock" should Optiplane imports be banned.
Of course, it doesn't help that Intel is the world's biggest semiconductor manufacturer and that most of its manufacturing facilities are located on U.S. soil. It would be one of the hardest-hit companies by the ban, leaving China's booming semiconductor industry and industry competitor juggernaut TSMC with a clear advantage. It is also unclear whether Intel could procure the compounds from other providers - such as CMC Materials - at the scale it requires.
Intel does seem to have a compelling argument. USITC staff lawyers have shown support for Intel's call for a 24-month delay in any import ban, which would aid in the manufacturing and supplier transition. Thomas Chen, an investigative attorney with USITC, said that a 24-month delay would "provide a sufficient period for Intel to transition to acceptable non-infringing alternatives, particularly if the commission finds there is a semiconductor chip shortage."
Of course, there is a semiconductor shortage, as we know all too well. Intel will likely be required to demonstrate the exact impact such a ban would have on its operations. For its part, CMC stated, "The reported 'semiconductor shortage' is a result of a complex set of economic factors and has nothing at all to do with the supply of CMP slurries, let alone the supply of the specific infringing products at issue in this investigation."