Intel is fighting a potential ban on imports of a critical semiconductor manufacturing compound by the United States International Trade Commission (USITC). The Optiplane compound, also known as chemical mechanical planarization slurries, is manufactured by DuPont’s Rohm & Haas units in Taiwan and Japan.
DuPont was recently accused of infringing on patents held by Illinois-based CMC Materials Inc, according to Bloomberg. Intel claims that if the embargo goes into effect, the current acute semiconductor shortages will only become worse.
CMC Materials’ legal action is at the centre of the USITC’s examination into whether or not the compound should be banned in the United States. The commission had planned to make a judgment on the matter yesterday, but it was postponed until December 16th due to a last-minute statement. At this point, tying Intel’s concerns about the ban to the delay would be pure guesswork.
Planarization slurries are an essential part of the semiconductor manufacturing process. They’re used in several stages of the months-long wafer fabrication process. They’re used to polish the wafer’s surface in between manufacturing stages, and “subtle variations between them have outsized impacts in a fabrication environment,” according to Intel.
Given the extremely delicate nature of the semiconductor manufacturing process, any change – even a change in slurry provider – can have a disproportionate impact on yields. It’s also possible that Intel would need to devote a significant amount of resources to integrate a new solution into its production lines.
In its appeal to the commission, Intel went even farther, claiming that “banning Optiplane slurries from U.S.-based semiconductor chip production lines without a 24-month transition time could conflict with national security and economic interests.” Furthermore, it appears that the corporation is concerned about a “slurry supply shock” if Optiplane imports are prohibited.
Of course, the fact that Intel is the world’s largest semiconductor manufacturer, with the majority of its manufacturing facilities in the United States, doesn’t help matters. It would be one of the hardest-hit enterprises as a result of the prohibition, giving a clear edge to China’s burgeoning semiconductor industry and industry challenger behemoth TSMC. It’s also uncertain whether Intel could get the compounds at the size it needs from other suppliers, such as CMC Materials.
Intel appears to have a compelling case. Staff lawyers at the United States International Trade Commission have expressed support for Intel’s request for a 24-month delay in any import ban, which would help with the manufacturing and supplier transition. A 24-month delay would “provide a sufficient period for Intel to transition to acceptable non-infringing alternatives, particularly if the commission finds there is a semiconductor chip shortage,” according to Thomas Chen, an investigative attorney with the USITC.
Of course, as we all know, there is a semiconductor shortage. Intel will almost certainly be required to demonstrate the precise impact of such a ban on its operations. “The reported semiconductor shortage,’ on the other hand, is the result of a complex set of economic factors and has nothing to do with the supply of CMP slurries, let alone the supply of the specific infringing products at issue in this investigation,” CMC said.