Several factories in China have been busy repurposing Nvidia GeForce RTX gaming graphics cards to create dedicated AI accelerators, according to a report published by the Financial Times (FT). The most popular GPU targeted by the reprocessing plants is one of the best graphics cards available, the GeForce RTX 4090. A manager from one of the factories told the source that he had been responsible for disassembling more than 4,000 Nvidia GeForce graphics cards in December alone.
US sanctions have meant that organizations in China have had difficulty sourcing Nvidia’s most potent AI accelerators. This is believed to have led to several factories establishing disassembly lines to repurpose consumer gaming products from the green team.
With sanctions subsequently tightened further to cover gaming GPUs like the GeForce RTX 4090, Chinese factories have already started to buy batches of the new GeForce RTX 4090D. According to the FT report, the Chinese factory managers are evaluating the RTX 4090D for component performance and harvesting. Nvidia’s China-market RTX 4090D is expected to be about 5% slower than the RTX 4090 in gaming. However, the full mix of modifications made by Nvidia “could mean the slower version was [is] not powerful enough for large language model training,” reports the FT.
An eyebrow-raising aspect of the FT’s report is the assertion that activity at these GPU repurposing factories has ramped up fourfold over a very short period. The source says one Chinese factory processed around 1,000 GeForce RTX graphics cards in November, rising to about 4,000 in December.
Factory managers told the FT that the main customers of the repurposed component AI accelerator cards were the public enterprises and small AI labs that didn’t stockpile enough commercial accelerators before the October sanctions.
Inside a Chinese graphics card disassembly facility
We first reported on China’s consumer graphics card repurposing factories last November. Thanks to an illuminating Baidu social media post, we saw piles of GeForce RTX 4090 graphics cards from vendors like Gainward and Palit, which had been acquired for repurposing. Subsequently published photos also showed Asus, Colorful, Zotac, and Gigabyte branded cards piled up, ready for the chop.
The consumer gaming graphics cards were pictured being pulled apart and retrofitted with blower-style coolers by the Chinese social media source. However, there was also said to be an intermediary step, where GPUs and VRAM chips are taken off these gaming graphics cards and then used to populate an ‘AI Accelerator’ PCB.
We shall have to wait and see whether repurposing China-market RTX 4090D graphics cards for AI accelerators is viable. If news comes out that it is, we may see even more sanctions adjustments by the US.
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Mark Tyson is a Freelance News Writer at Tom's Hardware US. He enjoys covering the full breadth of PC tech; from business and semiconductor design to products approaching the edge of reason.