China’s history of leapfrogging in technology was often the result of realities on the ground. Back in the 1980s it trailed other countries in rolling out copper wire for telephones, for instance. That meant that hundreds of millions of Chinese never got landlines, but jumped straight to cell phones instead. This would reverberate across the smartphone revolution, which set a faster pace in China than in Europe or the United States.
Something similar happened in credit cards, never a favourite for Chinese consumers, who skipped straight to the world of digital payments. These transitions weren’t situations in which the Chinese had made scientific or technological breakthroughs. It was more a case of taking the lead in applying new standards at scale. And in other sectors or industries the Chinese have been hamstrung by dependence on foreign knowhow, nowhere more so than semiconductors, the foundation layer of so many technologies of the future. But might a leapfrog moment be ahead here as well?
Companies in the US, South Korea and Taiwan are said to have a stranglehold on semiconductor production, especially at advanced levels. But the status quo isn’t set in stone – consider the fact that none of the world’s most advanced chips are made on American soil, even though the base technology was created in California, giving Silicon Valley its name.
Reports in the Beijing Daily this month highlight another effort from the Chinese at climbing to the top table, with news of the country’s first production plant for “multi-material and cross-size” photonic chips, which will be built (and potentially ready to start production) in the Chinese capital by next year.
The foundry, which is being built by Sintone, a locally based enterprise, will make chips for customers in data centres, medical testing and high-speed communications.
Photonic chips contain components that work with light (photons) rather than the electron-based formats that dominate the current generation of semiconductors. That could bring potential performance gains, allowing the chips to exceed so-called “more than Moore” thresholds in capacity, speed and energy efficiency. Proponents say they should have pole position for sectors with intense processing demands, like quantum computing, high-speed data transmission and applications of LiDAR for autonomous driving.
Another of the key attractions of photonic chips, says the Global Times, is that they can be made without high-end equipment such as extreme ultraviolet lithography. That is just as significant as the performance gains, as far as the Chinese foundries are concerned, because they are being denied access to the most advanced iterations of chipmaking equipment by the Biden administration.
Hence the mention in the Chinese media last year when Huawei announced that it had also started research into photonics. The Shenzhen-based giant was one of the first to be shut out of high-end semiconductors by the American embargo.
Sceptics on some of the claims being made about photonics say that Chinese laboratories and research institutions have been feted for crucial breakthroughs for years but that the industry has struggled to get beyond experimental stages. Experts that were asked for comments on the prospects of the Sintone factory in Beijing also cautioned that there is going to be lag time between getting to “industrial verification” of the technology after the initial plant has been built.
Yet sales of chips based on optoelectronics had already created an industry worth $722 billion worldwide last year, according to research consultancy SkyQuest. Firms from China have a leading position in shipments of photonics-based devices too, with estimates of $130 billion in sales over the same period.
DAMO, Alibaba’s in-house research unit, is citing the chips as a key trend to watch in the technology sector, predicting widespread adoption of photonic formats at data centres over the next three years. Interest will proliferate if Chinese companies are blocked from sourcing the equipment that makes advanced semiconductors in their current form, while insiders are anticipating a surge in demand for higher-performing processors in a context in which the world’s leading foundries are struggling to keep up with performance demands.
“Chipmakers expect that the tools and materials used for making semiconductors for decades will need to be changed or even replaced before long, and eventually the days of silicon itself, the base material of the industry since its inception, will be numbered,” the Financial Times warned in its own forecast this week of how the sector is heading into a state of flux.
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