This is the first case study in our series titled Case Studies in PRC Foreign Tech Transfers that we launched on 18 December 2020. These case studies are based on foundational research we conducted a few years ago. We invite you to follow us on Twitter and on LinkedIn to stay up to date on our latest publications.
UK-based Dynex Semiconductor (Dynex) designs, develops, and manufactures high power semiconductors, including insulated gate bipolar technology (IGBT) semiconductors—a key component in high-efficiency electric energy conversion systems, variable-speed drives, trains, electric and hybrid-electric vehicles, power grids, renewable energy plants, and power electronic assemblies. In 2008, Zhuzhou CRRC Times Electric (CRRC Times Electric; 株洲中车时代电气股份有限公司), a subsidiary of state-owned China Railway Rolling Stock Company Limited (CRRC; 中国中车股份有限公司), acquired a 75% stake in Dynex. Since the acquisition, CRRC Times Electric has successfully manufactured IGBT semiconductors in China, which are now being used to support advances in People’s Liberation Army (PLA) programs.
Zhuzhou CRRC Times Electric (CRRC Times Electric; 株洲中车时代电气股份有限公司), a subsidiary of the PRC state-owned enterprise (SOE) China Railway Rolling Stock Company Limited (CRRC; 中国中车股份有限公司), in 2008 acquired a 75% stake in British tech company Dynex Semiconductor. This gave CRRC access to advanced semiconductor technology, which it took advantage of through heavy investment in Dynex. Despite the investment, Dynex has experienced significant layoffs in the last five years following CRRC efforts to transfer technology back to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). CRRC Times Electric in 2019 acquired all the issued and outstanding shares of Dynex not held by the SOE, making Dynex a wholly owned CRRC Times Electric subsidiary.
- Dynex specializes in semiconductors called insulated-gate bipolar transistors (IGBTs). CRRC Times Electric’s 2008 annual report stated that the purchase of Dynex and its advanced technology “received warm support from the NDRC [National Development and Reform Commission] and the Ministry of Railways” and that CRRC began integrating Dynex into its semiconductor business immediately after the acquisition. Dynex also established an additional R&D center in 2012 for research on high-end IGBT applications in different vehicles.
- Transfer of technical know-how occurred through training of CRRC employees at Dynex. Dynex’s former CEO in 2015 told the China Daily, the PRC’s official English language daily, that the cooperation allowed CRRC “to compete on equal footing with the world’s top semiconductor makers.” CRRC Times Electric engineers, embedded in Dynex for a period of time before returning to China, greatly enabled “technology transfers from Dynex to Zhuzhou CSR.”
- Dynex management was key in the establishment of China’s first IGBT manufacturing facility, located in Zhuzhou, giving Beijing direct access to IGBT technology. The People’s Daily, the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) Central Committee’s official newspaper, hailed the 2014 announcement as an important development for national defense and breaking the foreign monopoly on IGBT chips. By 2015, CRRC Times Electric was producing an annual output of 120,000 integrated circuit chips and 1 million IGBT modules, and also began exporting them to other countries.
- Dynex in January 2018 announced that CRRC was establishing The Times Electric Innovation Center (TEIC) in Birmingham, England following a “substantial new investment” by CRRC Times Electric. TEIC was touted to eventually employ “hundreds of research and development engineers” but at present appears to have fewer than 50 employees. The company’s products include electric power inverters, components that were key for the alleged EMALS breakthrough detailed below.
- Dynex in the last five year has seen successive rounds of layoffs. PRC state media in 2017 touted the increased investment CRRC Times Electric brought to Dynex, noting the growth of the company from 250 to 350 staff after its acquisition, however, local media more recently have reported that since at least 2015 it has been “shedding staff,” with over 100 layoffs cumulatively completed or planned as of July 2020.
The acquisition of Dynex IGBT technology gave the PRC access to valuable technology vital to ongoing PLA modernization efforts. Most prominently, IGBTs are critical for the PLA Navy’s (PLAN) pursuit of railguns and aircraft launching mechanisms that would greatly expand the combat capabilities of future aircraft carriers.
- CRRC Times Electric IGBT chips supported critical breakthrough’s in the PLAN’s electromagnetic launch system (EMALS) for the PRC’s second home-grown aircraft carrier Shandong, a breakthrough partially based on more efficient electric power conversion. These breakthroughs ultimately did not make it to the Shandong because of the ship’s inability to generate sufficient power onboard,1 but as the PLAN continues to build new carriers, EMALS will likely remain a key priority. In September 2020, the Global Times—a subsidiary of the People’s Daily—reported unnamed PLAN sources stating that the next aircraft carrier would “likely” include electromagnetic launch systems.
- An aircraft carrier equipped with EMALS would significantly boost the PLAN’s carrier force’s combat power. The technology would allow the PLAN to launch aerial tankers, airborne early warning aircraft, anti-submarine warfare planes, and transport aircraft from the carrier’s deck.2
- The IGBT technology derived from the Dynex-CRRC partnership may have supported PRC programs to develop a railgun capable of firing projectiles at almost 5,400 mph. A former senior Dynex executive in 2018 told The Sunday Times in London that the CRRC acquisition “could have helped the development” of both the railgun and aircraft carrier programs.
1 James Maclaren, “With Its New Aircraft Carrier, Is China Now a Blue Water Navy?” The Diplomat, 25 January 2020, observed 19 November 2020 at URL: https://thediplomat.com/2020/01/with-its-new-aircraft-carrier-is-china-now-a-blue-water-navy/.
2 Franz-Stefan Gady, “China’s New Aircraft Carrier to Use Advanced Jet Launch System,” The Diplomat, November 6, 2017, at http://web.archive.org/web/20201119182317/https://thediplomat.com/2017/11/chinas-new-aircraft-carrier-to-use-advanced-jet-launch-system/