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The forefront of the US-China technology dispute passes Belgium




The historic Belgian city of Leuven is a centuries-old university and is known as the headquarters of the brewing giant Anheiser Bush InBev NV. Not as much as the location of semiconductor research organizations that are currently the focus of both political and industry attention.

The Interuniversity Microelectronics Center (imec), perhaps the best-protected secret in Belgium, is an application in the fields from genome sequencing to autonomous driving that is globally sought after for research into the future of computer chips. I will.

As chips become a political weapon in the US-China technology conflict, they are getting more and more attention in the eyes of the government. Meanwhile, a serious industry shortage during a pandemic is competing for access to advanced research as the United States, China, Japan and Europe all demand greater independence in semiconductor manufacturing.

The European Commission is in talks with imec on plans to build continental chip capacity. This month, a South Korean ministerial delegation visited. Alongside the White House’s ASML NV in the Netherlands last month, the name was confirmed in a US supply chain review that virtually monopolizes the machines needed to make state-of-the-art chips. In the words of a Washington observer, imec is one of the places most people don’t know, but everyone should know.

imec semiconductor clean room. There is global demand for future efforts in computer chips.

Photographer: Olivier Matthys / Bloomberg

CEO Luc van den Hove is in his office on the 15th floor of the futuristic imec tower, with 360-degree views of the countryside just outside the historic town “I haven’t received as much attention as it does today,” he said in an interview. .. “We are getting more attention than ever from local politicians, European politicians, US politicians and other politicians.”

Chinese politicians too. Prime Minister Li Keqiang visited in October 2018, before tensions over trade with the Trump Cabinet spread to chips, and according to a report of the visit posted to the Chinese government, “ the world’s largest market” “Vast business opportunities” were emphasized. website.

Imec was previously Huawei Technologies and Qualcomm Inc. We worked with SMIC, China’s largest chip maker, to help set up an R & D company. However, within eight months of Lee’s visit, the US Department of Commerce added Huawei to its entity list, followed by a series of export controls targeting China’s access to US chip technology.

Luc Vanden will hob in his office on July 7th.

Photographer: Olivier Matthys / Bloomberg

Today, imec is participating in a scholarship program to fund postdoctoral researchers from China, and local media reports that in February, the Wuxi semiconductor industry in Jiangsu Province, a major chip-producing region, I became a member of the association. However, according to Van den hove, it has less than five people in China and is not conducting research and development in China.

“The situation three or four years ago when it happened was very different from what it is today,” Vandenhof said of Lee’s visit when asked about the insertion of politics into the industry.

He added that imec strictly complies with export controls, including those imposed by Washington, and argued that imec’s research capabilities were not compromised by political tensions. “But we have to be realistic and face the fact that these geopolitical tensions are rising at this point.”

Explain this: Global shortage of computer chips

Imec was founded by the Flemish local government in 1984 and currently has approximately 4,500 staff, including research students. About 75% of the funds are from Intel Corp. And Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. From Samsung Electronics Co. From major chip manufacturing partners, such as Applied Materials Inc. and Applied Materials Inc.

Over the last 30 years, we have built an important relationship with ASML. Using the company’s lithography machine, it has become a major research hub for what is called scaling. The facility has a € 2.5 billion ($ 3 billion) “pilot line” that allows researchers to work on chip manufacturing processes that are typically two to three generations ahead of today’s state-of-the-art manufacturing. Therefore, while the world’s most advanced chips are measured at 5 nanometers, or one billionth of a meter, imec is already operating below 2 nm.

The Fraunhofer Institute in Germany and Netri in France are also conducting chip research in Europe, and TSMC has listed Semiconductor Research Corporation in the United States as a partner alongside imec. However, the scope of the latter study is considered to give it a lead.

“There are two gems in Europe,” Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger said in an interview in May. “One is ASML, the most advanced lithography, and the other is imec, the most advanced semiconductor research in the world.”

The job also targets it for industrial theft. The Flemish newspaper De Tijd reported in 2018 that a Chinese researcher at imec was deported by Belgian authorities on suspicion of being a spy. Van den hove confirmed the report, but he said the incident had occurred before that.

A technician next to a luxury class 1 clean room storage pod containing semiconductor wafers. The company was founded by the Flemish local government in 1984 and currently has approximately 4,500 staff, including research students.

Photographer: Olivier Matthys / Bloomberg

“But this is not the first case. There were other cases with other people who did not act in accordance with our Code of Conduct and values,” he said, and the case was addressed to citizens of a particular country. He added that it was not limited. ..

Read more: How Belgium became a European spy den and a gateway to China

Governments are also working in an atmosphere of increasing sensitivity to technology.

The UK is currently conducting a national security review on the acquisition of the UK’s largest chip factory by China-owned Nexperia NV. The Dutch government has not yet granted ASML a license to ship one of its state-of-the-art machines to China, revealing that the United States is in favor of the technology remaining in the Netherlands.

The Biden administration is likely to be focusing on imec in discussions with the European Union on expanding US alliances in technical conflicts with China, saying that Washington’s Center for a New American Security technology and national security Martijn Rasser, head of the security program, said.

View of Leuven from the imec tower. The historic city of Leuven has been the focus of both politicians and industry attention due to its imec facility.

Photographer: Olivier Matthys / Bloomberg

“Otherwise, I’m stunned,” said Lasser, who previously worked on technology and innovation at the Central Intelligence Agency. “Imec is a truly unique facility.”

Asked if the Biden administration had reached out, Vandenhof said, “There is a lot of debate on many of these topics,” but refused to say who. “We are eager to contribute positively to the development of the industry, and whatever we can do to support it, we will entertain those discussions,” Imec added.

One of the fields that will attract attention in the future is the field of compound semiconductors. China is investing in the development of so-called third-generation chips made from compound materials such as gallium nitride to establish leads without relying on US silicon-based technology. Van den hove is skeptical that this area will be more than a niche market for specific applications, rather than a silicon alternative.

“I don’t think stand-alone compound semiconductors are a huge market,” he said. “I believe silicon is the perfect platform.”

Luc Van den hove is reflected in the 300mm semiconductor industry R & D wafers.

Photographer: Olivier Matthys / Bloomberg

Moore’s Law, which doubles the number of silicon chip components every two years, “never slows down,” although the means of achieving it change by combining innovations such as new designs and transistor types. .. Not only does it continue to get smaller, “we will be less than a nanometer,” he said.

Van den hove made a bright impression about the industry’s potential beyond existing disciplines. Chip technology has the potential to improve food production and surveillance, for example, he said.

The same is true when faced with rising geopolitical headwinds.

“There’s a lot going on in the world right now, but I think it’s very important that we’re calm,” Vandenhof said. “The chance is huge.”

— With the support of Nick Wadhams, Jing Li, Natalia Drozdiak and Peter Martin




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