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What should engineers know more about GaN?

03 Dec 2014  | Janine Love

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Reep concurs with the potential for more RF/microwave/mm-Wave applications, noting that GaN allows designers to reach higher levels of RF power with reduced DC power, circuit area, component count and, ultimately, expense.

"The systems that take advantage of this are wide ranging today and will only expand in the future—a key part is the dramatic expansion of communication density between both people and things. The Internet of Things needs GaN capabilities to reach full potential," says Reep.

Zeroing in on a specific GaN technology, Ejeckam explains that GaN-on-diamond enables GaN engineers to triple the RF output power density of a power amplifier while in tandem reducing the GaN's junction temperature rise by 40-50 per cent, as compared to industry-standard GaN-on-silicon carbide materials. "These benefits have dramatic downstream effects on reliability, system energy consumption, system costs, system size/weight, and overall performance," he says, noting that engineers at Raytheon Corporation, AFRL and others have announced these "3X" power-density and thermal benefits in recent months/years.

Advice from the experts

So, what should EEs designing new products know about GaN?

"GaN will displace silicon in power conversion. To avoid obsolescence, EEs need to be gaining experience in GaN now."—Lidow

"GaN outperforms all other RF materials for very high voltages (scores to hundreds of V), high power density (tens of KW/ and high-frequency (GHz) applications. GaN-on-Diamond based systems outperform all other types of GaN by many fold, in particular GaN-on-SiC and GaN-on-Si—even after including the added material costs of diamond."—Ejeckam

"GaN is available today and useful in largely the same manner as GaAs. However, the reliability of GaN is greater than two orders of magnitude higher than GaAs, which revolutionises field performance and life cycle costs. So EEs shouldn't constrain new products by thinking about GaN as just a GaAs replacement. Knowing the capabilities of GaN can enable a product you didn't conceive of before."—Reep

"While both GaN-on-SiC and GaN-on-Si have demonstrated impressive performance levels at microwave and mmW frequencies, EE designers should be aware that this technology is still maturing. Using both silicon and especially GaAs as examples, it shouldn't be surprising that process, design and even basic structure improvements are still evolving. For the short term, designers should take a more conservative approach to designing for applications that are based on the existing accepted GaN topographies, device structures and processes. In addition, longer term projects might well require the designer to have the flexibility to employ more aggressive R&D concepts, i.e. GaN-on-Diamond, more exotic band gap solutions to the Schottky barrier layer configuration, etc., to meet the final system specifications."—Boles

Looking ahead

According to a report by MarketsandMarkets, "The entire GaN semiconductors market is expected to grow robustly at a CAGR [compound annual growth rate] of 22.2 per cent over the next eight years, i.e., from 2014 to 2022, at a CAGR in power semiconductors being more than 60.5 per cent."

Clearly, there is great deal of potential for GaN across a broad range of applications. Of course, as with any technology, technical hurdles remain. And, as with any new technology, perhaps the foremost hurdle is cost. GaN also would benefit from some thermal management improvements and increased integration. But, perhaps what it needs more than anything else is a bit more "time in the saddle," proving its worth, reliability and longevity, thus giving engineers the confidence to select it for their next design.

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