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Europe vows it won't let US and Asia treat it as a source of museum-grade chip tech

With €43 billion at stake, Thierry Breton says that Europe should get advanced fabs

Europe is not throwing billions at its semiconductor industry to end up as a source of important-but-dull silicon, EU Commissioner Thierry Breton said during his keynote at the Interuniversity Microelectronics Centre's annual forum in Antwerp, Belgium, this week.

"We are refusing any attempt of geographical segmentation where Europe would produce mature nodes, while Asia and US would produce advanced nodes," he told the forum, emphasizing the need for the bloc to establish semiconductor research, development, and manufacturing capabilities for advanced process tech at 2nm and below.

"Europe cannot and will not be considered as a mere observer in any 'underground technological battle' between blocks," he added. "I want a Europe that knows how to lead in semiconductors."

The comments come just weeks after the European Union finalized its €43 billion ($46.7 billion) Chips Act, which provides subsidies and tax incentives for chipmakers setting up shop in the EU's 27 member nations. The Commission believes the funds are crucial to bolster Europe's share of the semiconductor market, and to reduce the region's reliance on Asia and the USA for advanced silicon.

But many of the foundry investments the program has enabled focus on mature nodes for automotive or industrial applications.

For example, last year, German conglomerate Bosch announced it would invest €3 billion into semiconductor manufacturing, research, and development. Great news, right? Yes, if you're a vehicle maker that needs bog-standard parts, because Bosch plans to focus on producing hardware in the 40-200 nanometer range. That's not exactly bleeding edge.

Research isn't enough, Europe needs fabs

Which is not to say that Europe is a stranger to advanced semiconductor tech.

Its member nations house some of the most important names in the industry. Most notably, The Netherlands hosts ASML, the sole producer of extreme-ultraviolet lithography machines essential for producing the most advanced semiconductors. Breton wants more local manufacturing of the kind of kit ASML makes possible.

"Any chips produced today — especially advanced chips — has European research and technology embedded in it," Breton said, adding "being excellent in research is not enough. To be industrially relevant, one needs to build factories and produce in Europe."

And when Breton says produce, he means leading-edge production alongside any older chip tech.

The EU has decent prospects of scoring such work. Intel's megafab in Magdeburg, Germany, plans to employ 20 angstrom and smaller process tech. That's roughly equivalent to 2nm.

But it is not clear the fab will be built. Intel's recent sales struggles mean it is not flush with funds. Combined with rising costs for energy, materials, and construction services, the company has reached a stalemate with the German government over funding. Intel wants more, and the Germans want more fab for their cash.

Taiwan's TSMC is also rumored to be setting up shop in Germany with the help of NXP Semiconductor, Bosch, and Infineon. But unless something changes the Taiwanese company — the world's largest and arguably most advanced foundry operator — won't be bringing its 3nm, let alone 5nm or 7nm process tech to Europe. Instead, the facility is said to focus on mature 28nm process tech to serve automakers.

Advancing in less glamorous fields

Breton's speech included multiple mentions of fully-depleted silicon on insulator (FD-SOI) tech, a sort of a high-tech evolution of planar transistors, which deliver relatively speedy performance while sipping power.

Top chipmakers Global Foundries and STMicro are using FD-SOI to target automotive and industrial applications.

But Breton sees that as an opportunity for Europe to drive improvements of FD-SOI tech, and expressed hope it can be pushed to 7nm processes and beyond. He also highlighted ongoing investment into the low-power semiconductor tech.

Such innovation could mean that GlobalFoundries and STMicro's €7.4 billion joint fab in Crolles, France, delivers the leading-edge output Breton craves even though it will initially make somewhat staid silicon.

Not an isolationist endeavor

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing semiconductor shortage, both Europe and the US have rallied behind efforts to bolster domestic supply chains and ease their reliance on Asia-Pacific-based foundry operators like TSMC and Samsung Electronics. Particularly in the US, these efforts have often taken on nationalist undertones.

In his speech, Breton assured the audience that the EU's Chips Act was "not about closing Europe or doing everything in Europe," and was instead about rebalancing supply and talent in a crucial field. "This is about developing policy to manage our dependencies and create the necessary leverages to defend our strategic assets." ®

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