China uses foreign machines to make quantum computers

A Chinese company has made a 72-qubit superconducting quantum chip with foreign machines as the United States’s curbs failed to slow China’s development in this area.

Origin Quantum, a Hefei-based quantum computer maker, on January 6 officially launched its third-generation quantum computer called Wukong, which uses the name of the Monkey King in Chinese mythology as the superhero can transform into 72 different forms.

The company said in early 2023 that it would launch Wukong in July of the same year. But it postponed the launch to this month without giving a reason.

It launched its 6-qubit superconducting chip, known as KF-C6-130, in September 2020 and used it in its self-developed quantum computer called Benyuan Wuyuan. It unveiled Benyuan Wuyuan 2 with a 24-qubit quantum chip, KF-C24-100, in February 2021.

Now Wukong uses a 72-qubit quantum chip called KF-C72-300, a superconducting chip that can work only at a temperature close to absolute zero (-273.15°C).

People do not need to guess how Origin Quantum made its chips as it has already showed its entire production line to the state-owned China Central Television (CCTV) in an interview on January 31, 2023.

In the footage, Jia Zhilong, deputy director of the Anhui Quantum Computing Engineering Research Center, a joint venture of Origin Quantum and the Key Laboratory of Quantum Information of Chinese Academy of Sciences, explained every step and machine used in the production. 

Foreign suppliers

Firstly, Origin Quantum uses imported lithographic technology, a MA/BA8 Gen4 mask aligner, to create a pattern on a wafer. This machine was made by Germany’s SÜSS MicroTec, which was established in 1949 initially as a distributor of optical instruments and later as a contract manufacturer. 

In 2001, SÜSS MicroTec entered the photomask business by acquiring the California-based Image Technology. 

SÜSS MicroTec’s MA/BA8 Gen4 mask aligner Photo: China Central TV

Secondly, the chip undergoes a coating and an oxidation process in a QBT-J four-chamber ultra-high vacuum (UHV) coating system, which was made by Yuomao Technology, a Xiamen-based company founded in 2018.

Yuomao said in December 2021 that it received tens of millions of yuan, or several million dollars, in a series A funding, from Sequoia Capital, a California-based venture capital giant. 

Last June, amid rising geopolitical tensions between the US and China, Sequoia Capital said that by March 2024 it would be split into three independent firms: HongShan for the Chinese markets, Peak XV for Indian and Southeast Asian markets and Sequoia for the US and European markets.

In the coating process, also known as vacuum evaporation deposition, an electronic beam (e-beam) is shot at a piece of superconducting metal, such as niobium aluminum, which will evaporate and deposit on a wafer over it. 

Jia says in the footage that the additive layer of superconducting metal on the wafer is only one nanometer thin. He says the wafer will also undergo an oxidation process in the same machine.

The origin of this technology is not revealed in the video. Japan, according to public information, remains dominant in the e-beam lithography market.

Thirdly, the wafer will be checked for defects. In this section, a rapid thermal processing machine made by Real RTP, a South Korean firm, appears in the footage. 

According to Real RTP’s website, the Real RTP 100 machine is capable of different applications, such as rapid thermal annealing and oxidation. The machine can heat a wafer to over 1,000°C for the few seconds it takes to change the wafer’s electrical properties.

Real RTP 100 enables rapid thermal process for making chips. Photo: China Central TV

In December 2022, Origin Quantum said it had developed its NDPT-100, China’s first non-destructive probe electrical measurement platform, which looks like a high-resolution microscope. In January 2023, it said it had developed its MLLAS-100 laser annealer, which can accurately remove defects in quantum chips to enhance chip performance.

Jia says that in the past it took a month for technicians to find all the defects on a wafer without the NDPT-100, but now the procedure can be shortened to as little as an afternoon. Without providing the exact figures, he also says the MLLAS-100 helped increase the yield of chips by 10 times. 

Finally, the wafer will undergo a testing and packaging process, which involves mature technology that China already has.  

Export controls

As of the publication of this article, SÜSS MicroTec, Yuomao Technology and Real RTP had not responded to Asia Times’ inquiries about whether their machines in China used US parts, software or technologies or, as seems highly likely, Japan’s e-beam gun.

Pattern on a chip that is used to make ‘Wukong’ quantum computer Photo: Origin Quantum

Some IT experts said there is no evidence that these foreign companies have violated US chip export controls, which were announced by the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) on October 7, 2022. They said the US rules were aimed at restricting China’s ability to obtain and manufacture advanced computing or supercomputing chips but not quantum ones.

Besides, as Origin Quantum’s production line was set up in early 2022, its suppliers may not have been subject to the US export controls imposed in October of the same year.

In November 2021, three China-based entities were added to the US entity list for acquiring and attempting to acquire US-origin items in support of military applications, such as counter-stealth and counter-submarine applications, and the ability to break encryption or develop unbreakable encryption.

Top Chinese quantum scientist Pan Jianwei. Photo: CGTN

The sanctioned include Hefei National Laboratory for Physical Sciences at Microscale, QuantumCTek and Shanghai QuantumCTek. They are all linked to Chinese physicist Pan Jianwei, who was dubbed China’s “Father of quantum.”

Origin Quantum is a separate firm, not linked to Pan, that has not been hit with sanctions.

Production scale

When Jia was interviewed by CCTV in January last year, the production line had been running for a year. At that time, Jia said the production line had completed 1,500 batches of production in 2022 but he did not disclose the yield. 

He only said Origin Quantum had shipped a 24-qubit quantum computer for the first time. The shipment made China the third country worldwide to have built and delivered quantum computers after the US and Canada.

He also displayed an empty shelf and said it would accommodate the coming Wukong chip. 

Zhang Hui, general manager of Origin Quantum, said in an article published in December 2022 that China was about three to four years behind leading countries in terms of quantum hardware. He added that there was a huge gap between China and the US in the industrial applications of quantum computing.

He said Origin Quantum lagged behind IBM and Google in terms of hardware products and development but enjoyed some advantages in software and operating systems.

In November 2022, IBM released Osprey, a 433-qubit superconducting quantum computer with triple the number of qubits of its Eagle device released in late 2021. Osprey remains the world’s fastest quantum computer as of today.

Last month, IBM unveiled the 1,121-qubit Condor, as well as the 133-qubit Heron, which is the company’s least error-prone device to date and can combine with other quantum computers. It plans to launch its 1,386-qubit Flamingo this year.

Read: China’s fastest-yet quantum computer still way behind US

Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3

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