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How will Canon’s release of lithographic printers in 2024 affect the US-China situation?


Canon Inc. announced that it could ship nano-printing lithography (NIL) machines in 2024 or early 2025. This has raised concerns in the United States about China’s potential assistance in producing advanced chips below 7nm amid ongoing constraints.

Previously, in October 2023, Canon startled the global semiconductor industry by revealing its capability to produce 2nm semiconductor chips using advanced nanoimprint lithography (NIL) technology. NIL technology can imprint circuit designs onto wafers (silicon semiconductor wafers) instead of using the traditional extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography machines.

Canon’s FPA-1200NZ2C NIL system for 300mm wafers allows patterning with a minimum transmission bandwidth of 14nm, equivalent to the production node of 5nm – required for most advanced semiconductors today. According to Canon, further improvements in mask technology will enable NIL to achieve a minimum bandwidth of 10nm, corresponding to the 2nm node.

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Canon has been researching this technology since 2004. From 2009 onwards, Canon has collaborated in development with the U.S. startup Molecular Imprints Inc. before acquiring the company in 2014. After nearly 20 years of research and development, nanoimprint lithography machines emerged, receiving positive reviews from industry experts. Canon claims that NIL printers are simpler and cheaper than traditional EUV lithography machines, consuming only 10% of the energy of EUV machines due to their use of optical pattern imprinting technology instead of lasers for circuit patterning on wafers.

With its trailing advantages, NIL technology is assessed to be capable of producing semiconductor chips at the 5nm process node, even progressing towards 2nm chips with this advanced technologies. This is why the United States is extremely concerned to the NIL printers and their release timing.

Currently, ASML (Netherlands) is the first and only unit producing EUV lithography machines, but is not allowed to export to China. That’s why China cannot produce chips beyond the 7nm node.

However, if Canon is not subject to the ban on shipping NIL lithography machines to China, then, as a result, this foundry can produce 5nm chips, even approaching 2nm chips milestone. This poses a significant concern for the United States and its allies.

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However, it has also been reported that Canon’s leading position in potential applications of nanoimprint lithography machines and the origins of at least some of the technologies within it are placed in the United States. Therefore, it is likely that Canon will have to subject to the similar export controls as EUV lithography, preventing shipment into China.