Intel CEO Gelsinger says China is ten years behind in chipmaking capabilities, and it will stay that way

Micron
(Image credit: Micron)

Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger believes that sanctions imposed against China's semiconductor production sector by the US, Japan, and the Netherlands are restraining the development of process technologies beyond 7nm in China for now. While China will continue to develop its semiconductor prowess and design more advanced chipmaking tools domestically, it is about a decade behind the global semiconductor industry and will stay this way, Gelsinger thinks.

"The export policies that have been put in place recently, we have seen the Dutch [policies] in place, the US policies Japanese policies, sort of put a floor in the 10 to 7nm range for [the Chinese semiconductor industry]," Gelsinger said at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, broadcast by CNBC. "We are racing to go below 2nm and then 1.5nm, and you know we see no end to that in sight."

For now, China-based foundry SMIC has a 7nm-class process technology that can be used to make high-volume complex application processors for smartphones, which is about five and a half years behind TSMC and Samsung. Meanwhile, according to media reports, Shanghai Huali Microelectronics Corp. (HLMC) began trial production of chips on its 14nm FinFET-based fabrication process in 2020, which means that it is now nine to 10 years behind TSMC. 

Yet, both SMIC and HLMC use tools produced in the Netherlands, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the U.S., as well as pure raw materials from Japan. Without access to them, Chinese companies will have to develop their wafer fab equipment and means to purify gases, resists, and other chemicals for leading-edge chip production. For now, they are about ten years behind the global chip industry, and while they will evolve, they will stay about a decade behind for the foreseeable future, according to Gelsinger.

"It is not like China is not going to keep innovating, but this is a highly interconnected industry," Gelsinger said. "The mirrors of Zeiss, the equipment assembly of ASML, the chemicals and resist in Japan, the mask making of Intel. All of those together, I think this is a 10-year gap, and I think it is a sustainable 10-year gap with the export policies that have been put in place."

Modern semiconductor process technologies require a concerted effort by the whole global industry, plenty of fundamental research, and hundreds of billions of dollars spent on R&D. Whether or not China will be able to handle all of this alone is up to debate. Meanwhile, if China is completely cut off from advanced chipmaking tools and technologies, its semiconductor companies may try to reverse engineer and copy equipment that they can lay their hands on to close the gap with the global chip industry. This is not exactly a sustainable method, but they simply may have no choice.

Anton Shilov
Freelance News Writer

Anton Shilov is a Freelance News Writer at Tom’s Hardware US. Over the past couple of decades, he has covered everything from CPUs and GPUs to supercomputers and from modern process technologies and latest fab tools to high-tech industry trends.

  • peachpuff
    Without access to them, Chinese companies will have to develop their wafer fab equipment and means to purify gases, resists, and other chemicals for leading-edge chip production.
    Develop with stolen ip? 🤔
    Reply
  • ivan_vy
    Pat talks to investors, TSMC N7 was released in 2018, Samsung N7 in 2019 and Intel N7 in 2021, the gap is 5 years not 10, it's a hell of a long time in tech development but N7 is still viable for consumption of mass products for office, schools and embedded systems.
    The bleeding edge might not be in risk to be overtaken by China but the mass market is.
    https://en.wikichip.org/wiki/7_nm_lithography_process
    Reply
  • nightbird321
    Anyone else here remember Intel's confidence about their own fab advantage 10 years ago?
    Reply
  • endocine
    "China will continue to develop its industry" s/develop/industrialespionage/
    Reply
  • kwohlt
    ivan_vy said:
    Pat talks to investors, TSMC N7 was released in 2018, Samsung N7 in 2019 and Intel N7 in 2021, the gap is 5 years not 10, it's a hell of a long time in tech development but N7 is still viable for consumption of mass products for office, schools and embedded systems.
    The bleeding edge might not be in risk to be overtaken by China but the mass market is.
    https://en.wikichip.org/wiki/7_nm_lithography_process
    Because it's not a linear trajectory. Surpassing 7nm-class lithography without access to more ASML EUV is difficult. Eventually the industry will transition to high-NA EUV over the next 5 years and China will need to develop this tooling from scratch.

    Massive amounts of inputs have been sanctioned and will now need to be created domestically to offset this - this is a huge, but certainly possible, burden to overcome that'll absolutely set the Chinese semi-conductor industry back by years relative to western rivals.
    Reply
  • Maolo76
    10yrs behind.. Maybe. But the smaller node has limited use at the moment. The majority is 7nm which cvina can produce.
    I predict China is embarking on a dual path on catching up and researching and developing different path to manufacturing chips. They are working on photonic, carbon type chips, etc. So just like china dominate the EV sphere. They maybe on the same journey to leapfrog the legacy companies. Just like an article said.. They are developing disruptive technology that will shake up the traditional semiconductor industry.
    Reply
  • artk2219
    Its closer than the soviet union ever got, they were a good 15 - 20 years behind on average, then again global tensions with China are not as bad as they were with the Soviet Union. That said, it would definitely put them in the good enough for most uses spot, which means they will hopefully be more innovative in how the equipment is used, it could be interesting honestly.
    Reply
  • kwohlt
    Maolo76 said:
    10yrs behind.. Maybe. But the smaller node has limited use at the moment. The majority is 7nm which cvina can produce.
    I predict China is embarking on a dual path on catching up and researching and developing different path to manufacturing chips. They are working on photonic, carbon type chips, etc. So just like china dominate the EV sphere. They maybe on the same journey to leapfrog the legacy companies. Just like an article said.. They are developing disruptive technology that will shake up the traditional semiconductor industry.
    Are there many examples of China developing breakthrough technologies? Generally they excel at taking technologies pioneered in other countries and developing methods to reproduce them at scale for lower cost.

    Semi-conductor manufacturing is different then EVs or pretty much any other manufacturing - leading node manufacturing at scale is the most difficult production on the planet. It's not easy.

    Sure, Chinese companies may develop ways to produce sub 7nm class nodes with current equipment, but each successive node generation that comes, without improved tooling, is going to suffer from yield issues as more layers and patterning is required.
    Reply
  • kwohlt
    ivan_vy said:
    Pat talks to investors, TSMC N7 was released in 2018, Samsung N7 in 2019 and Intel N7 in 2021, the gap is 5 years not 10, it's a hell of a long time in tech development but N7 is still viable for consumption of mass products for office, schools and embedded systems.
    The bleeding edge might not be in risk to be overtaken by China but the mass market is.
    https://en.wikichip.org/wiki/7_nm_lithography_process

    Missing the forest for the trees. Current Chinese production capabilities are due to pre-sanction tooling and inputs. Further node development is essentially "paused" until these capabilities can be domestically reproduced. TSMC N3 launched in 2023. Intel is launching GAA-FET and BSPD later this year. Densities are surpassing 200MTr.

    Comparing 7nm class nodes is missing the point - the question is when will post-sanction China be able to reproduce the nodes that are coming out post-sanction from Intel, TSMC, and Samsung?

    As it stands, China can definitely pose a risk to other industries like Global Foundries, but that's not really the concern of the sanctions - the Sanctions are specifically to limit leading node capabilities and their relationship to AI hardware.
    Reply
  • jp7189
    kwohlt said:
    Missing the forest for the trees. Current Chinese production capabilities are due to pre-sanction tooling and inputs. Further node development is essentially "paused" until these capabilities can be domestically reproduced. TSMC N3 launched in 2023. Intel is launching GAA-FET and BSPD later this year. Densities are surpassing 200MTr.

    Comparing 7nm class nodes is missing the point - the question is when will post-sanction China be able to reproduce the nodes that are coming out post-sanction from Intel, TSMC, and Samsung?

    As it stands, China can definitely pose a risk to other industries like Global Foundries, but that's not really the concern of the sanctions - the Sanctions are specifically to limit leading node capabilities and their relationship to AI hardware.
    Furthering your thoughts, can China even maintain the equipment they have now? Presumably sanctions cause them to lose access to replacement parts for many of the machines.
    Reply