Huawei is reportedly trying to give its smartphone ambitions a boost with plans to announce the world’s first three-nanometer chipset.

China’s Huawei Technology Co. Ltd. is reportedly trying to give its smartphone ambitions a boost with plans to announce what would be the world’s first three-nanometer chipset.

Details of the so-called Kirin 9010 three-nanometer chipset were announced by a well-known industry leaker, @RODENT950 on Twitter, and first reported Saturday by GizmoChina.

Nanometers define the distance between transistors and other components in computer processors, so the smaller the number is, the more that can be placed within the same area. That allows for faster and more efficient processor designs. Smaller transistors also use less energy, which translates to longer battery lives and lower heat dissipation, which means the chips run cooler.

Huawei’s HiSilicon business unit, which designs chipsets for Huawei’s smartphones, announced its latest flagship mobile processors the Kirin 9000 and Kirin 9000E in September, saying at the time they were the first to be built on a five-nanometer process. Those chips are currently only found in Huawei’s flagship Huawei Mate 40 series.

Following that announcement came the Samsung Exynos 1080 and Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chips, which are also built on a five-nanometer process.

@RODENT950 said Huawei’s new chip should launch sometime in 2021 and will likely appear in the Huawei Mate 50 series smartphones that are expected to be launched during the fourth quarter.

Industry observers weren’t expecting a three-nanometer mobile chip for at least two years, so if Huawei really does manage to pull it off, other manufacturers would likely follow suit, GizmoChina said. Qualcomm Technologies Inc. may also switch to a three-nanometer process if the report is true, while Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., has reportedly decided to skip the four-nanometer process and go directly to three nanometers. Apple Inc. is also expected to announce three-nanometer processors to be built by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp., but those aren’t expected to arrive until 2022.

There are big questions over Huawei’s ability to actually manufacture the chip, though, because of sanctions imposed on it by the U.S. The company is at the center of a long-running dispute between the U.S. and China over technology and security, and was placed on an “Entity List” in May 2019 that effectively prevents it from sourcing components from U.S. firms.

The sanctions were extended in May 2020 when the U.S. Commerce Department issued an amended export rule. That rule blocked shipments of semiconductors to the company in order to “strategically target Huawei’s acquisition of semiconductors that are the direct product of certain U.S. software and technology.”

The new rule prevents foreign semiconductor manufacturers that use American software and technology from shipping products to Huawei unless they first obtain a special license from the U.S. government. It forced TMSC and other chipmakers to stop taking orders from HiSilicon last year.

Huawei’s problem is that only a few chip manufacturers have the capability to make three-nanometer processors, since smaller transistors require very precise instruments and machines. Because of the U.S. sanctions, the only chip makers that can supply HiSilicon at present are other Chinese firms such as Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp. and Hua Hong Semiconductor Ltd.

But neither of them is believed to be capable of manufacturing the chips. Indeed, SMIC only recently added the capacity to manufacture 14-nanometer chips, and it’s unlikely to advance that much further because it was recently hit with U.S. sanctions itself.

The reality is that if HiSilicon really does have a three-nanometer processor in the works, it likely exists only on paper and will only ever become a reality if Huawei finds a way to get those sanctions lifted.

Originally Published at Silicon Angle