How GaN will enable the tech of tomorrow

Author : Dialog Semiconductor

03 November 2016

Silicon is currently used to build power devices across a wide range of power electronic designs – from consumer adapters to server power supplies to automotive.

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Its material properties have, up to now, enabled the necessary process and device improvements. Yet, the continued demand for higher performance and miniaturisation of power electronics has driven the Silicon power switch to its limits.  

The faster switching power supplies needed to shrink electronic designs require highly efficient power devices. Gallium Nitride (GaN)-based power switches require less energy to operate than Silicon models, making them ideal for the future of power conversion.

The value proposition around GaN is clear. It enables a more favourable trade-off between size and energy efficiency than Silicon, which allows a system level improvement for products like portable adapters for smartphones and other computing devices, reducing cost, size, and power.  

Today, GaN is widely used in RF and LED applications. It has been available for over a decade from compound semiconductor manufacturers, various small wafer fabs and research institutions.  Previously perceived as an exotic process by carrying a high cost and sub-par reliability, GaN is now ready for mass adoption. Over the course of the past five years, enormous improvements in device and process technologies have enabled GaN to achieve the necessary levels of quality and reliability for mass adoption. Some of the largest foundries in the world now have GaN programs in production or in development.    

Monolithic integration of critical analogue, logic, and power switches using GaN enables a lower cost and improved performance compared to non-integrated switches. True monolithic approaches are always better in terms of yield and cost compared to the discrete or co-packaged alternatives. This level of integration is also important since it reduces unwanted parasitic elements, which may cause EMI, increase the risk of failures, or lower the power efficiency. There is no substitute for a higher level of integration.

The next phase for GaN will be its mass adoption. While there are many applications that can greatly benefit from the technology, such as automotive, motor control, solar inverters, or wireless charging, it is imperative for GaN to reach consumer-level volume to drive the next level of investment and bring costs down; otherwise, GaN will remain a niche manufacturing technology.  

An important application for GaN is the high-end consumer adapter, for which GaN can deliver a solution that is much smaller in size and reduce wasted energy in half compared to traditional PC or smartphone adapters. Moreover, GaN devices can be scaled to meet higher power conversion requirement of future applications discussed previously than traditional Silicon designs.

Just as critical are the complementary products and technologies. GaN power devices enable sophisticated and energy-efficient designs, for which different control schemes are required. These new topologies, such as active clamp flyback or LLC, take full advantage of much smaller, more-efficient magnetic and passive components, shrinking the power supply.  New controllers are now under development and, together with GaN power ICs, will enable power electronics to enter a new era of true power density.

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