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Gallium Nitride Draws Interest for Power Electronics in Future Markets

Gallium nitride, a III/V semiconductor eyed for its performance in high-voltage electronics, is gaining traction for markets pertaining to electric vehicles, continuous sensing and communication for autonomous cars, and military applications.

The demand for more efficient high-power electronics is fueling growth in the market for gallium nitride (GaN). GaN—a wide-bandgap, high-mobility semiconductor material—generates low heat and has good heat dissipation. It is eyed for boosting performance in high-power, high-frequency components used in aerospace and defense applications, and is also investigated for replacing silicon current-switching components used in hybrid and electric vehicles. Investors also see its potential for wireless communication devices and sensors used in autonomous vehicles.

According to Transparency Market Research, four companies owned over 65% of the global GaN semiconductor market in 2015, with Efficient Power Conversion Corporation accounting for a 19.2% share of the global market, followed by NXP Semiconductors, GaN Systems, and Cree. The market research company predicts the GaN global market will reach $3,438 million by 2024 (up from $870 million in 2015) at a 17.0% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) from 2016 to 2024.

The use of GaN in the military has been a key driver for its market growth. For more than 20 years, GaN devices have been developed and applied in microwave- and radio-frequency wireless communication devices, offering new performance advantages over traditional metal-oxide semiconductor field-effect transistors (MOSFETs). Developments in packaging have led to GaN and GaN-enhanced devices that can operate at higher pressures and temperatures than enabled by previous technology.

Sill, compared to silicon and silicon carbide devices, which have also been tapped for use in high-voltage power electronics, GaN semiconductors remain relatively expensive to produce. The contrast is especially striking as the cost of silicon production continues to decrease. In addition, current production methods for GaN are not highly scalable, and the need for special packaging and supporting electronics make them even more costly for widespread commercial use.

Despite high production costs, GaN is still highlighted for its high current-switching speeds, high heat tolerances, and robustness to high voltages, making it more efficient than silicon in some applications. And because it generates low heat and is a good heat dissipater, it is eyed for reducing the weight and complexity of heat sinks currently employed in electric vehicles. Its low power losses also make it attractive for fast charging.

For these reasons, GaN electronics are attracting the interests of automakers looking to increase their footprint in the electric vehicles market. For example, automaker venture capitalist group, BMW i Ventures recently led a $37M Series C financing for manufacturer GaN Systems. The investment ties in with the automaker’s goals to expand its production of electric and hybrid vehicles by to two-thirds, or by up to 100,000 units this year. BMW also expresses the long-term goal to expand its share of electric cars and hybrid cars to 25% of its sales by 2025.

 “Gallium nitride-based transistors have become, in my opinion, the next big stepping stone in miniaturization. We have seen systems one-quarter of the size while providing better efficiency than traditional silicon-based alternatives. With GaN, any system that needs power can become smaller, lighter and more efficient. These capabilities are particularly relevant in the automotive sector,” said BMW i Ventures managing director Uwe Higgen in a statement after the GaN Systems funding.

GaN Systems will put the funding toward growing its sales and marketing teams, and toward increasing its R&D capabilities for smaller and more efficient GaN products.

Other research to improve GaN technology that is shaping the industry includes a novel GaN rectifier from MIT that uses field rings to increase blocking voltage and reduce reverse leakage currents. A gate-injected GaN transistor under development by Panasonic is designed to slash losses in current-switching devices. Finally, Efficient Power Conversion Corporation (EPC) is expanding its research and development for enhancement-mode GaN transistors and ICs with the opening of its new applications center in Blacksburg, Va. this year.

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