Special Report in Hunan Daily: The Soaring "Chinese Chips"


In 2011, Xi Jinping, a member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of CPC Central Committee, the secretary of the Secretariat of the CPC Central Committee and Vice President of PRC, visited CRRC Zhuzhou Institute and spoke highly of its development achievements, and noting that the transformation and combination with the productivity of CRRC Zhuzhou Institute show the close and organic integration of R&D capabilities and production, accelerating the localization and improving innovation capacity, very nice job.

As a central enterprise of high-tech equipment manufacturing in Hunan, CRRC Zhuzhou Institute will always keep in mind what the general secretary said, and unswervingly implement the strategy of "Three Highlands and Four New Missions". To achieve brilliant results about high-quality developments, we have worked diligently to deepen the reform of the science and technology system by continuously strengthening independent innovation and making breakthroughs in original and pioneering technologies based on three core technologies: "Device" "Material" and "Algorithm" and thus create a source of original technological innovation.  

2022 is the year of the 20th CPC National Congress. In order to welcome the 20th CPC National Congress, Hunan Daily recently launched many news reports themed "Following the Footsteps of the General Secretary · Hunan Chapter", following the footsteps of General Secretary Xi Jinping all the way back to see the new landscape of Hunan about thanksgiving and seeking for progress. On June 15, Hunan Daily focused on CRRC Zhuzhou Institute, with the title of "The Roaring 'Chinese Chips'", fully showing its R&D journey and achievements, the "Chinese Chips" - IGBT.


Here is the full report  


[Business Card]


A "super powerful" electronic component with the professional scientific name of Insulated Gate Bipolar Transistor (IGBT) can complete 100,000 complex voltage and current control and transformation in one second, allowing the current to be powered precisely according to the application requirements. As the core device of energy conversion and transmission in the world today, "IGBT" is regarded as the "heart" of high-speed rail, which converts electrical energy to drive high-speed trains to fly. In 2014, China's self-developed 8-inch IGBT chips completed production at CRRC Times Electric. Since then, this "Chinese Chips" have been widely used in rail transportation, smart grid, electric vehicles, new energy equipment and other fields.


The train has roared in China for more than 140 years.

From 1881, when the first steam locomotive was pulled out on the Tangshan-Xugezhuang Railway, to 1959, when China's first diesel-hydraulic locomotive was successfully trial-manufactured, to the 1990s, when electric locomotives were put into use, each innovation of power system has brought about a leap in train speed. In December 2009, the Guangzhou-Wuhan express railway with a speed of 350 km/h was put into use, which means China rushed into a new "high-speed railway era".

Over the past 10 years, China has built the world's largest high-speed rail network, with more than 500 cities and hundreds of millions of people closely connected. Today, the total mileage of high-speed railway lines in operation has exceeded 40,000 kilometers, and the high-speed railway trains that run on each line every day have been more than 5,000.

With the rapid development of China's high-speed rail, the core device IGBT, known as the "heart" of high-speed rail, is of vital importance. ZHUZHOU CRRC TIMES ELECTRIC CO., LTD. (hereinafter referred to as "Times Electric"), located in Zhuzhou, Hunan Province, is the company that produced the "Chinese Chips" of China's high-speed rail.


Part: 01

Fingernail-sized Chip can complete 100,000 cycle switches per second

At 9:12 a.m. on June 12, "the CRH " G6119 departed from Zhangjiajie West Railway Station, and accelerated from 0 to 350 km/h within 5 minutes. Qiu Shuai, who often travels back and forth places in southwestern Hunan due to his work, now prefers the Zhangjiajie-Jishou-Huaihua High-speed Railway when choosing travel means. "The trip from Zhangjiajie to Huaihua has been shortened from four hours to one hour more, and the trip from Jishou to Huaihua from more than two hours to half an hour."

Zhangjiajie-Jishou-Huaihua High-speed Railway is called "Cloud High-speed Rail" as the line is basically built in the mountains, cliffs and barranco, the flat line is less than 10%. However, its speed and stability are not lost to the other high-speed rail lines in flat areas.

During the running, it is necessary to raise the speed of high-speed rail train from 0 to more than 300 km/h in a short period of time, and conversely, it is also necessary to drive a train that is running at high speed stopped smoothly in a very short period of time. Although it seems to be a simple process of "speed up" and "speed down", the related transmission equipment, traction converter and other electric equipment need to complete a series of complex and difficult actions in a short time, which needs to ensure that the current and voltage required by various equipment is extremely accurate and reliable.  

Under current technical conditions, only high-power IGBT chips can repeatedly achieve such demanding current control.

At Times Electric, the reporter glimpsed the real IGBT chips: Hundreds of fingernail-sized chips are arranged in a piece of circular sheets 20 cm in diameter.

What's so special about this little thing? Through the thick glass, looking at the shiny chip on the silicon wafer, the reporter failed to feel the magic of it.

"Although its size is small, the internal structure is very complicated!" Luo Haihui, head of R&D department of Times Electric, said that, in terms of structure, 60,000 basic units called "Cells" are placed in parallel inside such a fingernail-sized chip with a thickness same as half a hair. Only under a high-powered microscope can you see the true structure inside the chip. In terms of function, this kind of chip can complete 100 thousand switched actions in 1 second, realizing the rapid conversion of current.

Generally speaking, the IGBT chip can achieve flexible control of complex, sensitive voltage or current. If we consider the invisible "electricity" as the tangible water, the current is the water flow and the voltage is the water pressure. People can control the opening and closing of gates to change the flow and volume of water; similarly, IGBT is like a gate in electric power devices, through which the electric power flowing through various electric devices can be controlled to make the utilization of electric power more reasonable and efficient.

Part: 02

Producing IGBT chips is prohibitively more difficult than carving into the hair

Before entering the IGBT chip production workshop, Luo Haihui first put on disinfection underwear, and then put on fully sealed integrated operation clothing, dust-proof shoes, disinfection masks, and then put on fully sealed gloves for second disinfection...

"The cleanliness standards for chip production areas are too harsh." Luo Haihui explained that to develop and manufacture IGBTs with superior performance and high reliability, many design and process difficulties have to be broken through.

The "Cells" in the IGBT chip are only one-tenth of the size of a hair, and 60,000 such "Cells" have to be highly evenly placed on a fingernail-sized chip. The uniformity coefficient of the "Cells" determines the performance of the chip, "which is far harder than carving on a piece of hair".

The manufacturing of IGBT chips is a process in which the physical action and chemical action are perfectly combined. There are a total of more than 200 process steps, large and small, each process step must be accurate and in place, each technical action must be handled properly. The vibration of a sneeze, or the coverage of a speck of dust, could lead to fabrication errors that would kill an entire batch of chips.

Ding Rongjun, an Academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and chief scientist of CRRC, thought back to the times that IGBT technology was monopolized by a few industrial powers and foreign companies held the pricing power, they sold a module for over 10,000 yuan and only sold finished products; the transfer contract documents also clearly state that IGBT technology for transmission and control of electric drive systems cannot be transferred. He said that this technology is an important manifestation of the China's industrial competitiveness and cannot be bought with money.

At that time, the annual cost of imported chips for China's high-speed trains exceeded 1.2 billion yuan, and the procurement cycle took months or even a year.  

How difficult it is to independently develop a IGBT chip with superior performance and high reliability from scratch.

Times Electric wisely chose a shortcut to implement the strategy of "acquisition-integration-innovation". Through the global strategic layout, it absorbed the international R&D resources and carried out independent research on IGBT technology.  

From the laboratory to mass production, the engineer team started the "24-hour operation" for months again and again, to verify, analyze and fine-tune hundreds of parameters about temperature, air flow and process time... until they found the best solution.

After conquering more than 30 key core technologies, Times Electric obtained the whole-process and complete technologies and processes system from chip design, packaging testing, reliability testing, system application, etc., and equipped with the conditions for large-scale industrialization.

In June 2014, the 8-inch IGBT chip, independently developed by China with complete intellectual property rights was successfully launched in Times Electric, and the "Chinese Chips" were ushered in for China's high-speed rail.

Part: 03

Took less than 10 years to achieve what the international giants achieved in 30 years 

On May 25, the direct-current Back-to-Back Power Grid Project in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area was officially put into operation, becoming the world's first asynchronous Back-to-Back Project. Through flexible DC technology, the originally connected large power grid in the Greater Bay Area is decomposed into multiple small unsynchronized regional grids, which can operate in each zone to prevent large area blackouts; and support each other to ensure coordinated interaction of regional grids on a larger scale.

IGBT devices have played a vital role, not only in the power grid project in the Greater Bay Area, but also in the development of smart grid.

An important prerequisite for grid operation is security, but the source of electricity is relatively complex, in addition to conventional methods of generating electricity like hydroelectricity generation and thermal power generation, wind electricity generation, PV generation and personalized and distributed energy sources are increasingly integrated into the grid. Because of the diversity of electricity sources, it poses a serious challenge to the safe and smooth operation of the grid. In particular, wind power, which is sporadic and fluctuant, is the most prominent test for the safe operation of the power grid. To transform the complex and unevenly sized "coarse power" into uniform, smooth and safe "fine power", semiconductor devices such as IGBTs are needed to play a regulating function, and the higher the power of IGBT devices, the wider the voltage range they can withstand and the higher the safety performance of the grid.  

IGBTs also shine in new energy applications. In Hainan Island, the Pearl of the South China Sea, there are frequent bus trips, but no exhaust emissions. It turns out that most of the buses running on the island are hybrid buses, and the use of automotive-grade IGBT modules makes hybrid buses 20% more energy efficient and easier for market promotion.

In addition to these "high end" equipment, IGBTs are also indispensable in daily life. For example, the inverter air conditioners use IGBT devices to optimize the control of electrical energy, so that the air conditioners can operate more intelligently and humanely, and save about 30% of electrical energy. For refrigerators, washing machines, induction cookers and other devices, IGBTs also have uses.

"We have upgraded 4 generations of IGBT chips consecutively for 8 years since the first batch of products completed production." Luo Haihui told the reporter that the "upgrade" was spontaneous and forced.

In 2014, when the "Chinese Chips" were just put into production, foreign competitors united to implement a drastic price reduction and started a fierce price war, while announcing the launch of a new generation of IGBT products into the market.

"We've only just learned to walk, and others are already running." Liu Guoyou, a senior engineer of Times Electric, said that once the competition for core technologies begins, one must try his best to be the first, or he will be left behind. "All engineers are driven by a sense of mission."  

After 9 years and 6 months and more than 3,000 days and nights of struggle, "Chinese Chips" have finally caught up with its rivals in technology and finished the 30-year road of the international giants in less than 10 years.

After catching up, we have to play the leading role.

Technological changes never stop in Times Electric. Smaller, more powerful, more intelligent "Chinese Chips" continue to be launched. "There is no benchmark to learn from, we have to rely on our own original innovation."  

In 2021, the seventh generation of IGBT technology came out, completely breaking the constraints of the original technology route. With the synergistic innovation of chips, submodules and modules, it overcame the world-wide problem of difficult coordination between the equalization of pressure and the number of chips, making the product performance reach the international leading level.

[Youth Observer]

If you can crack the egg from the inside, you might be an eagle.

Ran Xiyu, R&D Engineer of CRRC Semiconductor Co., Ltd.

Lifeline cannot be changed by others.

I am a male engineer majoring in "microelectronics". In short, to be a chip R&D engineer is a "professional counterpart" for me.  

Many people think that the chip is the CPU in a computer or cell phone. In fact, chips are used everywhere in today's world: high-speed rail and electric cars are both driven by chips, power grid current is transmitted by chips, industrial production is also controlled by chips, and thermal imagers that can be almost seen in all public places today also use chips for temperature sensor.  

It is no exaggeration to say that chip is the lifeline of a country.

As one of the fastest growing economies in the world, China's chip demand has been always high, attracting global industries to concentrate in China. A European businessman I knew at work had mentioned a question in a conversation, that is where can American chips and European semiconductor materials and equipment be sold?  Only to China.

However, having a huge market is not means holding the lifeline. When I was in college, the IGBT chips driving high-speed rail were still a fatal problem for China, and IGBT companies worldwide were all raising prices.

Technology blockade and chip supply cutoff are never far away. As long as there is a conflict of interest, we can smell the smoke of gunpowder in transistors at any time.

I have to admit, though, that the work in chip development is really boring after I engaged in the chip R&D industry - the working environment is always rigid and harsh, staring at the research object with a microscope often hurts my eyes, the chip production time is often calculated in months, and the error correction time is even longer... But I am sure I will keep going, because I am full of mission to make "Chinese Chips" with Chinese heart.

In the movie "The Battle at Lake Changjin", Wu Qianli said to his brother Wu Wanli:  An egg that s been cracked from the outside is destined to be eaten. If you can crack the egg from the inside, you might be an eagle.

(Source: Hunan Daily · New Hunan Client-Side) 

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