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GaN suppliers looking to expand presence in market

05 Apr 2016  | Michael Markides

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The annual American Power Electronics Conference (APEC) addresses issues relevant to practicing power electronics engineers. The conference held in Long Beach, California, from March 20 to 4, 2016, dwelt on several issues of interest to power electronics professionals, such as the ever-increasing electrification of automobiles, expected growth from smart energy applications, and the total market slowdown that began in the second half of 2015. What stood out for Power team of global information company IHS Technology, however, was the rapid adoption of gallium-nitride (GaN) technology – a topic made prominent by the presence of GaN specialist suppliers at the conference.

Wideband gap materials, namely silicon carbide (SiC) and GaN, have been commonly used in the semiconductor industry for many years, but market adoption has not reached the levels the industry has been hoping for. While these new materials offer the promise of better performance than silicon (Si), numerous issues have held back their adoption. First, price is always at the core of the argument–but to date only in a few niche applications, and only with a few products, does the increase in performance justify the higher price. For example, SiC has made inroads into the market for Schottky diodes, because the increased cost is justified by better performance of forward voltage, higher operating temperature, decreased leakage current, and lower reverse recovery charge (Qrr). The second main reason for poor adoption of wideband gap materials is the difficulties in supplying the material, manufacturing, packing and engineering, which has been a major reason GaN has not yet made major inroads in the market.

At APEC 2016, GaN suppliers were optimistic—noting major improvements in design and engineering to increase the reliability and performance of GaN transistors, which now gives them a much more realistic path to adoption. GaN also has greater cost-reduction potential, because GaN power devices can be grown on silicon substrates that are larger and less expensive than SiC.

GaN suppliers are now aggressively targeting the market in two ways: first by replacing silicon super-junction devices in existing markets and applications; and second, using the higher performance to target LIDAR, medical imaging and other emerging applications and even for low-voltage management in data centres, where power density and efficiency concerns are paramount and GaN's increased performance is more welcome.

What does this mean for consumers?

GaN will provide the higher performance needed for LIDAR and other new applications. LIDAR will potentially revolutionise the autonomous car market in the near future–enabling self-driving cars that are self-aware. In addition, GaN is now included in data-centre power supplies in data centres that are constantly under pressure to compute more bytes in less space with better power management. Data centres are ripe environments for implementing cutting edge technology like GaN power supplies, which will provide consumers with improved capabilities in their mobile devices, Internet services and other data-heavy applications. There are also numerous new imaging-tool technologies using GaN that enable smaller, less invasive medical technologies, from MRIs to internal body scanning.

The rest of 2016...

While the power semiconductor industry is clearly in a time of flux, the APEC show highlights that innovation is right around the corner. Mergers and acquisitions will continue through 2016 and market growth will, at best, remain flat; however, there are plenty of emerging applications on the horizon that will again create market growth in the near term. The question is, how much of that growth will come from GaN or SiC?

A recent report from the IHS Power Semiconductors Intelligence Service offers the following relevant conclusions:

  • In 2015 the global market for GaN semiconductor devices was estimated to be worth roughly $10 million, while the more mature market for SiC is valued at almost $200 million.
  • The market for GaN is forecast to grow to $600M by 2025, mainly from expected uptick in data centre applications and the growth in hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs). This growth from 2016 to 2025 represents an average annual revenue growth rate of roughly 50 per cent per year.
  • Meanwhile, by way of comparison, the SiC market is more mature, but growth is still forecast to be very strong and widely driven by adoption in HEVs. The annual growth rate for the SiC market from 2016 to 2025 is just over 30 per cent.

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