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Japan-South Korea rift

Samsung partly switches to South Korean chipmaking material

Export curbs spur search for alternative to Japanese hydrogen fluoride

Samsung began using locally sourced hydrogen fluoride for chipmaking on a trial basis.

SEOUL -- South Korea's Samsung Electronics has begun using domestically produced hydrogen fluoride in chip production on a trial basis in response to Japanese export curbs, it was learned Wednesday.

The company made the switch on one production line in late August, according to an industry source familiar with the situation. The trial is starting with parts of the fabrication process where the impact on chip quality should be relatively small, likely to see whether the material can be safely introduced elsewhere.

The hydrogen fluoride is imported from China and processed by a domestic company, the source said, though Samsung has not disclosed the specific companies involved. The chemical is used by chipmakers in applications including etching silicon wafers.

"We have conducted tests of [hydrogen fluoride] from non-Japanese sources for some production as part of our effort to diversify our supply sources," a Samsung insider said Wednesday.

The company started testing hydrogen fluoride from suppliers outside Japan after Tokyo tightened export controls on semiconductor manufacturing materials in July.

While China is the largest supplier of hydrogen fluoride to South Korea, Japan holds a near-monopoly on the ultrapure gas needed for chipmaking, with Stella Chemifa and Morita Chemical Industries controlling nearly 90% of the market between them. Japanese players import lower-quality hydrogen fluoride from China and process it domestically before exporting it to markets such as South Korea.

Samsung compatriot SK Hynix is also examining alternatives to Japanese etching gas.

Yet even with the curbs, chipmakers are reluctant to switch more fully to hydrogen fluoride from other sources. And in a positive sign for the supply outlook, the Japanese government approved a shipment of the chemical to South Korea in late August.

"If there's a stable supply of Japanese-made [hydrogen fluoride], we'll keep using it," a source in the semiconductor manufacturing industry said. "The steps underway now are preparations in case we can't source it from Japan."

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