Korean etching gas trials begin

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Korean etching gas trials begin

Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix have started trialing the use of domestic etching gas on their DRAM chip production lines, according to local reports Tuesday.

Neither company denied the reports, but both declined to officially confirm that the tests were taking place due to the sensitivity of the issue.

“What we can say at the moment is that we’re reviewing every option and that, until now, nothing has changed in our production process,” said a Samsung spokesman.

Etching gas, or hydrogen fluoride, is one of the three high-tech materials that Japan has tightened export restrictions on since July 4. The material is used to etch and clean circuits on chip wafers.

Data from the Korea International Trade Association shows that among the three high-tech materials, etching gas has the lowest dependence on Japan. Between January and May, 43.9 percent of Korea’s etching gas imports came from Japan. China accounted for a larger share at 46.3 percent. Japan’s control of photoresists and fluorine polyimide were much larger during the same period, accounting for 91.9 percent and 93.7 percent of Korean imports.

Economist Lim Dong-min of Kyobo Securities said in a Monday report that replacing Japanese hydrogen fluoride with Korean-made products “would be difficult but not impossible.”

However, chip industry sources say that the dependence on Japan greatly increased when it comes to etching gas of 99.999 percent purity. Such a level of purity is a must for sophisticated nano-level manufacturing procedures for high-performance chips.

“It’s true that most companies that have the technology to extract 99.999 percent purity etching gas were from Japan - they made up 80 percent to 90 percent [of suppliers],” said an anonymous industry source.

“But now there are Korean companies that may be able to substitute Japanese products. Although they may not be able to completely replace Japan, local chipmakers are testing them to see if this can work.”

Korean etching gas had been used for local chip manufacturing in the past, but mainly for tests or simpler procedures for less expensive chips.

Lee Joo-wan, a researcher at Hana Institute of Finance and former semiconductor engineer, said that finding domestic suppliers could be a long-term plan, but not an immediate answer.

“If we start talking about material that’s actually used for mass production, Japan’s proportion will be well over 90 percent - and it’s viable to say that the inability to use Korean products until now was because they fell behind in quality,” he said.

“Simply talking of quantity, even if the ongoing tests turn out to be successful, domestic suppliers would have to expand production facilities of their own in order to meet orders - this isn’t something that can be done in merely one or two months.”

Lee estimated the minimum period for the tests would be roughly six months. For chipmakers, the need may be urgent, but ensuring quality and lowering the defect rate are a priority as they are directly linked to credibility among their clients.

Last week, the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy confirmed that the Russian government said that it can provide hydrogen fluoride. However, there needs to be further verification if Russia’s products can replace Japanese products as Samsung and SK have never used them before.

BY SONG KYOUNG-SON [song.kyoungson@joongang.co.kr]

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