The 'most complicated machine humans have built' keeps US technology a decade ahead of China

I’ve written about this before but yesterday the NY Times published an interesting piece on the EUV lithography machines produced by ASML and how those machines really determine who can manufacture cutting edge microchips.

As you probably know, there’s a concept called Moore’s Law which suggests that the complexity of microchips doubles every two years while the cost of the chips is cut in half. And for the most part that has held true since the first CPUs were introduced in the 1970s.

But cramming more and more transistors into the same physical space gets harder to do over time. With each successive generation of chips, the number of transistors packed into a square millimeter has to climb. Actually making that happen turns out to be massively difficult. In fact, it required expertise from different companies around the world to allow for the creation of the world’s first EUV lithography machines. The machine itself is about the size and shape of a bus and costs $150 million dollars each.

Inside are a series of mirrors which reflect ultraviolent light through an image of the chip, shrinking it down so many copies can be printed onto a single silicon wafer. ASML partnered with German optical company Zeiss to produce the high end optics for the machines. But it turns out that even the best mirrors aren’t that reflective to the ultraviolet wavelengths needed to produce the small traces on the latest chips. So the light source has to be very bright to compensate. In the end, ASML settled on a design which sprays tiny droplets of molten tin. Those droplets are then hit with a powerful laser which instantly turns them into a plasma that releases a lot of ultraviolet light.

To say it’s a complicated system is underselling it substantially. An IBM senior VP calls it the most complicated machine ever built by humans. ASML has only made about 100 of them and can only make a maximum of about 50 of them in a year. But thanks to the Trump administration, China can’t buy one.

The tool, which took decades to develop and was introduced for high-volume manufacturing in 2017, costs more than $150 million. Shipping it to customers requires 40 shipping containers, 20 trucks and three Boeing 747s.

The complex machine is widely acknowledged as necessary for making the most advanced chips, an ability with geopolitical implications. The Trump administration successfully lobbied the Dutch government to block shipments of such a machine to China in 2019, and the Biden administration has shown no signs of reversing that stance.

Manufacturers can’t produce leading-edge chips without the system, and “it is only made by the Dutch firm ASML,” said Will Hunt, a research analyst at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, which has concluded that it would take China at least a decade to build its own similar equipment. “From China’s perspective, that is a frustrating thing.”…

Since ASML introduced its commercial EUV model in 2017, customers have bought about 100 of them. Buyers include Samsung and TSMC, the biggest service producing chips designed by other companies. TSMC uses the tool to make the processors designed by Apple for its latest iPhones. Intel and IBM have said EUV is crucial to their plans.

“It’s definitely the most complicated machine humans have built,” said Darío Gil, a senior vice president at IBM.

It would probably take a decade and a trillion dollars for China to replicate the European, Japanese and American supply chain that produces the parts for the ASML EUV lithography machine. That’s a long time and by the time they got it done the free would would have moved on to something even more advanced.

But once place that does have these machines is the world’s leading chipmaker, a company called TSMC which stands for Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company Co. So if you’re wondering why China is so hot to reunite Taiwan with the mainland, one reason may be that in taking over the island they would effectively seize control of the latest ASML machines which they can’t buy and can’t produce on their own. It would be the greatest theft of advanced technology in China’s history. If China wants its technology to catch up with the rest of the world, an invasion of Taiwan is probably their best bet.

Of course invading Taiwan would probably put an end to selling new EUV machines to TSMC, but the disruption of potentially having TSMC under Chinese control would potentially set back the rest of the world’s manufacturing by several years. China might not be able to catch up completely but they could jump ahead several years and set the US back at the same time. It’s one reason the US has been looking into being less dependent on places like Taiwan for our high tech manufacturing as we move forward.

Update: This primer on EUV lithography from Zeiss notes that a single image printed by the optical system contains about a terrapixel of information. That’s equivalent to 2.4 million times the number of pixels in an HDTV.

One more mind-blowing stat. If you expanded an EUV mirror to cover the entire size of Germany the largest bump on the surface would be 100 micrometers tall. That’s how perfect these optics that produce the chips in a modern iPhone are.