Soulbrain is able to make super pure etching gas

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Soulbrain is able to make super pure etching gas

Soulbrain, a mid-sized chemical company based in Gyeonggi, has succeeded in making etching gas so pure it can replace Japanese imports.

The Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy said Thursday that the company is now able to mass produce 12-nine, or 12N, hydrogen fluoride. The 12N refers to the level of purity: 99.9999999999 percent.

This level of purity is needed for precision chip manufacturing.

“Soulbrain expanded facilities to boost production and started to meet most of the domestic demand for hydrogen fluoride, bringing stability to the domestic hydrogen fluoride supply,” the ministry said.

Hydrogen fluoride, also known as etching gas, was one of the three high-tech materials on which Japan tightened export restrictions last July, along with photoresists and fluorinated polyimide. The three are essential in making semiconductor chips and displays.

Before the restrictions, Korean companies were dependent on Japan for the three materials, as domestic suppliers couldn’t meet standards in terms of purity. Soulbrain is the first Korean company to succeed in mass producing one of the three at a level that would allow for the substitution of Japanese imports.

After Japan started restricting exports, the main question was how fast local suppliers would be able to step in and stabilize supply. Soulbrain was one of the local companies said to be close to succeeding in the task, but nobody was able to clearly say how fast the achievement would come.

The Trade Ministry lauded the cooperation between the government and the private sector. From last July, the government, expediting permits for production, helped with the sourcing of production equipment and offered financial support to help Soulbrain meet the demand for the chemical. From Soulbrain’s side, the company boosted research and development (R&D) with domestic chipmakers to meet their purity standards.

“Japan’s export restrictions started as a crisis, but it eventually became a big motivation for our material, parts and equipment companies to strengthen their competitive edge,” said Trade Minister Sung Yun-mo during a visit to Soulbrain’s Gongju city factory in South Chungcheong, on Thursday afternoon.

To continue support for material, parts and equipment makers, the government will budget a total of 2.1 trillion won ($1.8 billion), an amount 2.5 times larger than last year, to support R&D and offer test beds, as well as granting tax cuts for facility expansion or tech development.

The Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry granted three-year bulk permits on photoresists last month, a few days ahead of a scheduled meeting between Korean President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

From the Korean government’s perspective, the move was not seen as a complete rollback. The three-month permission was still restrictive compared to a general license, which needs approval every three years. It was also highly limited, as only one company and one material were covered.

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

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