Samsung switching source of hydrogen fluoride from Japan to China due to Tokyo’s export curbs

By Tetsuo Sakabe

SEOUL, NNA - South Korea’s Samsung Electronics Co. has been shifting its source of hydrogen fluoride from Japan to China after Tokyo tightened export curbs on the chemical amid a spat with Seoul, which has resulted in economic sanctions between the neighboring countries, industry sources said.

Soulbrain Co., a South Korean firm engaged in manufacturing chemicals for use in semiconductor production, will be supplying refined hydrogen fluoride imported from China in the form of low-purity solution, the sources said. There is also a suggestion that Japanese technologies have been used in enhancing the purity of hydrogen fluoride solution.

The Japanese government on July 4 imposed export controls of three chemicals used in semiconductor production, including hydrogen fluoride which is used in 50-70 processes. Use of low-purity hydrogen fluoride increases the rate of flawed products. Whereas, hydrogen fluoride of extreme purity higher than “five nines,” or 99.999 percent, is required in extremely few processes such as dry edging.

Samsung Electronics is applying on an experimental basis Chinese hydrogen fluoride that has been refined by Soulbrain to the processes where low-purity hydrogen fluoride is compatible. Further examinations will be necessary for its use in mass-production lines, and it is expected to take at least six months to clear this stage, according to the sources.

The sources said that Soulbrain is using technologies of Japan’s Daikin Industries Ltd. in refining hydrogen fluoride solution procured in China. A business report by Soulbrain states that the company has signed a contract with Daikin on use of their patent rights. Spokesmen for Soulbrain and Daikin both refused to go into detail on the patent rights, citing such reasons as confidentiality.

In 1994, Soulbrain set up a joint venture, Fect Co., with Japan’s Stella Chemifa Corp. At its plant in the South Korean city of Gongju, Fect has been mixing hydrogen fluoride solution from Stella Chemifa with additives and supplying the products to Samsung Electronics and another South Korean chipmaker SK Hynix Inc.

Soulbrain started expanding its hydrogen fluoride refining plant in April this year as it plans to expand the supply of China-sourced products. SK Materials Co., a special-gas manufacturing unit of South Korean conglomerate SK Group, has recently started domestic production of high-purity gaseous hydrogen fluoride, an area in which South Korea is known to be lagging.

There are growing expectations in South Korea about domestic production of high-purity hydrogen fluoride. There is, however, a question of cost-effectiveness due to limited demand for the high-purity chemical.

“It is difficult to break the dominance of Japanese companies such as Stella Chemifa and Morita Chemical Industries Ltd. in the high purity product market,” said Lee Duck-hwan, a professor of chemistry and science communication at Sogang University. “It is rational to utilize their products as they are.”

Nonetheless, the diversification of South Korean sources may hurt Japanese companies in the long run.

“As the supply chain between Japan and South Korea has become the subject of political influence, the top management of (South Korean) companies are forced to wean themselves from dependence on Japan from the viewpoint of risk management,” said Ahn Jin-ho, a professor of materials science and technology at Hanyang University.

According to a survey conducted by the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry of 500 South Korean companies doing business with Japan, 70 of the respondents said that their trust in their business relationships with Japanese companies has deteriorated due to the tightened Japanese export controls.

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