SOURCE / ECONOMY
Hengqin cooperation zone eyes breakthroughs in analog chipmaking: researcher
Published: Sep 29, 2021 07:25 PM
A bidirectional reconfigurable wireless power transceiver chip designed by Lu's research group. Photo: Courtesy of Lu Yan

A bidirectional reconfigurable wireless power transceiver chip designed by Lu's research group. Photo: Courtesy of Lu Yan



The new cooperation zone on Macao's next-door Hengqin island will take a more targeted approach to revving up the country's chip ambitions, with a focus on efforts that could lead to breakthroughs in analog chipmaking, a local researcher said, in anticipation of gradual yet significant progress in one of the country's major technological bottlenecks amid US sanctions.

Compared with Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen, among other Chinese mainland cities with strong chip design expertise, the in-depth cooperation zone on the Hengqin island is smaller in size and can preferably be poised for more targeted strength, Lu Yan, associate professor of the State Key Laboratory of Analog and Mixed-Signal VLSI at the University of Macau (UM), told the Global Times in an interview on Tuesday.

VLSI, or very large-scale integration, refers to the process of IC creation by combining millions of semiconductor transistors onto a single chip.

Lu cited analog and mixed-signal chips and power management ICs, in which the UM's state key laboratory boasts industry-leading expertise. Other targeted moves could include advanced package capacity building in the zone, he suggested.

The laboratory, which specializes in cutting-edge research on various electronic systems, is one of the three state key labs the UM hosts.

Having made multiple breakthroughs in AI and 5G chips, and the third-generation semiconductor, the country faces obstacles in chip fabrication, the researcher commented, reckoning the US chip ban will largely act as a spur to push forward China's chip independence although it has dealt a blow to some domestic smartphone vendors.

"However, so long as our indigenous R&D capabilities cross this hurdle, no one can stop us in the future," he said.

Bidirectional reconfigurable wireless power transceiver system demonstrated by Lu's research group Photo: Courtesy of  Lu Yan

Bidirectional reconfigurable wireless power transceiver system demonstrated by Lu's research group Photo: Courtesy of Lu Yan



Based on types of circuitry, chips are categorized into analog, digital and mixed. Compared with digital chips, including memory and logic chips, analog chips are considered to be more reliant on chip design engineers and manufacturing, requiring longer-term R&D commitments.

The size of China's analog chip market hit $23.3 billion in 2020, accounting for 42 percent of the global total, China International Capital Corp said in a recent research report, citing data from the World Semiconductor Trade Statistics.

The world's top analog chip market, nonetheless, reported a self-efficiency rate of only 12 percent last year, per the report, citing Chinese industry statistics. 

A push for analog chipmaking, notably the manufacturing of higher-end analog chips, means years of technological accumulation and iteration. Domestic chipmakers have made notable progress in analog chipmaking for consumer electronics, claiming a big share of the market, Lu said.

But they still have to gradually climb up the ladder when it comes to chips designed for industrial applications and automobile usage that necessitate higher requirements for stability and reliability, he continued, describing the country's chip push as a long and laborious process that needs advances in chip design as well as advanced wafer fabrication and packaging.

Known for its chip showing, the number of papers - literally ground-breaking chip designs - the UM unveiled at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference, a flagship industry forum known as the "Chip Olympics," has over the past decade outstripped any other Chinese research institutes.

The lab Lu works at now has 18 professors and nearly 200 graduate students, mostly doctoral candidates, and aims for an increase in enrollment at the master's level to train more talent for domestic chipmakers.

Over the past year, professors at the laboratory have participated in more than 10 commercial projects, serving as R&D advisors, helping the companies to elevate product competitiveness.


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