Development of SMIC's 5nm AP for Huawei's Mate 70 reaches an important milestone

Development of SMIC's 5nm AP for Huawei's Mate 70 reaches an important milestone
In 2020, the U.S. Commerce Department changed an export rule to prevent foundries using American technology from shipping cutting-edge chips to Huawei. The latter was able to obtain Snapdragon chipsets for the P50, Mate 50, and P60 flagships although these chips were tweaked so that they couldn't work with 5G networks. Then, last August, Huawei stunned the world by introducing the Mate 60 Pro which was powered by its first new Kirin chip since 2020, the Kirin 9000s.

Because the Kirin 9000s could support 5G, for the first time since 2020's Mate 40 series, Huawei had the capabilities to produce a phone with support for 5G. Still, the Kirin 9000s was built using SMIC's 7nm mode preventing it from having as many transistors as the A17 Pro application processor (AP) used by Apple for the iPhone 15 Pro and iPhone 15 Pro Max. Built on TSMC's 3nm node, the A17 Pro is equipped with 19 billion transistors compared to 8.5 billion transistors inside the 7nm A13 Bionic that powered the iPhone 11 line.

While Huawei now has the capabilities to build a 5G chipset, at 7nm it remains behind the 3nm node that will be used to manufacture the latest APs from Apple, Qualcomm, and MediaTek later this year. And since SMIC and Huawei are banned from buying the extreme ultraviolet lithography machines needed to etch the incredibly thin lines on the silicon wafers that get cut into chip dies, it appeared that Huawei couldn't obtain chips any more advanced than 7nm.

But with rumors swirling all around SMIC and Huawei about their ability to create 5nm chips using older deep ultraviolet lithography machines (DUV), a tweet from an "X" subscriber named @jasonwill101 (via Wccftech) suggests that SMIC has already completed the taping out stage for 5nm chips. That means that the process now moves from chip design to production making this a rather monumental moment for the two Chinese companies.

SMIC is expected to charge Huawei much more for its 5nm production since using the DUV machine for such cutting-edge silicon results in lower yields and requires more work. Even if SMIC can get to 5nm using DUV, the real question is how it will get to 3nm and even more advanced without having access to an EUV machine. Last month, we told you that Huawei had filed a patent for a technology called self-aligned quadruple patterning (SAQP) lithography that might help the company obtain 3nm chips. But even then, leading foundries like TSMC and Samsung Foundry will be moving ahead to 2nm during the second half of 2025.

If SMIC, which is now the third largest foundry in the world after TSMC and Samsung, is able to build 5nm chipsets in 2024, they should debut later this year on Huawei's Mate 70 series.

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