South Korea’s SK mass-produces Japan-grade etching gas

SEOUL — South Korea’s SK Materials has begun mass production of a crucial chipmaking gas at a purity level nearly on par with Japanese-made offerings subject to export restrictions by Tokyo, the company said Wednesday.

A plant in the South Korean city of Yeongju will produce 15 tons of etching gas per year. Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix reportedly will procure the gas for their semiconductor businesses.

This places South Korea a step closer to creating a chipmaking supply chain largely independent of Japan. Seoul aims to have homemade etching gas meet 70% of demand from domestic chipmakers by 2023.

Hydrogen fluoride is used to etch patterns on high performance chips, among other processes. SK Materials has achieved 99.999% purity for its etching gas, a level known as “five nine” in industry parlance.

But the purity falls short of the “11 nine” etching gas exported by Japanese suppliers. SK Materials said its gas is used primarily to clean semiconductor wafers.

Tokyo tightened export controls on a number of high-tech materials in July 2019, a move that Seoul views as economic retaliation over South Korean court rulings regarding wartime labor. In response, SK Materials established a research and development center in November, financed via a fund formed by SK Hynix.

Other South Korean materials suppliers have received government support to develop alternatives to Japanese imports. Soulbrain, a midsized player, says it has begun producing liquefied hydrogen fluoride with a purity level higher than “five nine.”

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