Crossing the chokepoint

America has a plan to throttle Chinese chipmakers

It will deny them tools to do the job

MAKING CHIPS is complex work. Semiconductor manufacturers such as Intel, Samsung and TSMC themselves rely on machine tools built by an array of firms that are far from household names. The equipment sold by Applied Materials, Tokyo Electron, ASML, KLA and Lam Research is irreplaceable in the manufacture of the microscopic calculating machines that power the digital economy. A supply crunch, coming after years of ructions between America and China over control of technology, has made governments around the world more aware of the strategic importance of chipmaking. The significance of the kit used to make chips is now being recognised, too.

Such tools handle the complex processes of scratching billions of electric circuits into a silicon wafer. Those circuits shuttle electrons to do the calculations that display this article on a screen, plot your route across town or allow your fingerprint to unlock your phone. They must be perfect. KLA makes measurement tools which are essentially electron microscopes on steroids, scanning each part of a finished chip automatically for defects and errors. Some Lam Research tools are designed to etch patterns in a silicon wafer by firing beams of individual atoms at its surface. Applied Materials builds machines which can deposit films of material that are merely a few atoms thick.

The Chinese government’s efforts to develop a large and advanced semiconductor industry at home using these mind-boggling technologies have led to a rapid shift in the source of…