Electronic Components

Should we be investing in GaN fabs?

The wide bandgap semiconductor Gallium Nitride (GaN) has many advantageous properties, but it has been difficult to scale up production.  

During such an invigorating period in the industry, silicon semiconductors have been in massive demand. And in short supply. It has not been the best time to consider switching to a new wafer material. Not that there ever will be a quiet moment in this sector.

Where it all beGaN

GaN has only really been in the picture since the mid-90s, when its top uses were military. Since then it has seen growth, with a revenue of $1 billion in 2020 according to Strategy Analytics. Silicon wafer revenue, in comparison, was $11.2 billion. GaN is still a small fry.

Despite GaN production being a much smaller endeavour currently, there are several companies currently manufacturing GaN devices. GaN is currently used for power electronic devices thanks to their high electron mobility and high breakdown voltages.

A survey was undertaken by Microwave Journal, wherein they contacted major GaN suppliers around the world. Of the 8 that responded, there were 36 variants available, with gate lengths ranging between 0.5ɥm to 40nm. The GaN variants included GaN-on-SiC, GaN on Si and GaN on diamond substrates.

The potential future of semiconductors

We’ve talked before about how GaN could be a future replacement for the aging silicon semiconductors. This would not only benefit consumers because of its fast performance, but would also benefit the environment.

The first and most obvious factor, is that with more efficient semiconductors less of them would be required. GaN requires less raw material and because of the reduced size there can be more units per wafer.

Aside from this, the actual manufacturing emissions for GaN are much lower. Gallium metal is a by-product of aluminium smelting, and nitrogen is readily available in the atmosphere. GaN, then, has a minimal carbon footprint and is easily sourced.

If GaN could be used globally, it could make a difference against climate change, more than silicon or silicon carbide. It is also non-toxic and includes no conflict materials. GaN power IC devices can also be manufactured using already-established CMOS processing equipment.

It’s not GaNna be easy…

So GaN could well be a great alternative for silicon in years to come, however the problem comes with up-scaling production and transitioning. Changing the semiconductor material would undoubtedly incur several design and logistical changes, and would cause disruptions and delays.

Some industry experts have suggested investing in mega-fabs to produce GaN-on-Si wafers for manufacturers. This would help even out the disparity between GaN and silicon stock, and encourage more manufacturers to produce GaN devices.

It’s estimated that the GaN-based power IC management market will grow by about 70% each year from 2020 to 2026. This is just one use of GaN, but demonstrates how profitable the material may be in the future.

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This blog is purely for entertainment and informational purposes, it is in no way instructional.

Electronic Components

What are GaN and SiC?

Silicon will eventually go out of fashion, and companies are currently heavily investing in finding its protégé. Gallium Nitride (GaN) and Silicon Carbide (SiC) are two semiconductors that are marked as being possible replacements.

Compound semiconductors

Both materials contain more than one element, so they are given the name compound semiconductors. They are also both wide bandgap semiconductors, which means they are more durable and capable of higher performance than their predecessor Silicon (Si).

Could they replace Silicon?

SiC and GaN both have some properties that are superior to Si, and they’re more durable when it comes to higher voltages.

The bandgap of GaN is 3.2eV and SiC has a bandgap of 3.4eV, compared to Si which has a bandgap of only 1.1eV. This gives the two compounds an advantage but would be a downside when it comes to lower voltages.

Again, both GaN and SiC have a greater breakdown field strength than the current semiconductor staple, ten times better than Si. Electron mobility of the two materials, however, is drastically different from each other and from Silicon.

Main advantages of GaN

GaN can be grown by spraying a gaseous raw material onto a substrate, and one such substrate is silicon. This bypasses the need for any specialist manufacturing equipment being produced as the technology is already in place to produce Si.

The electron mobility of GaN is higher than both SiC and Si and can be manufactured at a lower cost than Si, and so produces transistors and integrated circuits with a faster switching speed and lower resistance.

There is always a downside, though, and GaN’s is the low thermal conductivity. GaN can only reach around 60% of SiC’s thermal conductivity which, although still excellent, could end up being a problem for designers.

Is SiC better?

As we’ve just mentioned, SiC has a higher thermal conductivity than its counterpart, which means it would outlast GaN at a higher heat.

SiC also has more versatility than GaN in what type of semiconductor it can become. The doping of SiC can be performed with phosphorous or nitrogen for an N-type semiconductor, or aluminium for a P-type semiconductor.

SiC is considered to be superior in terms of material quality progress, and the wafers have been produced to a bigger size than that of GaN. SiC on SiC wafers beat GaN on SiC wafers in terms of cost too.

SiC is mainly used for Schottky diodes and FET or MOSFET transistors to make converters, inverters, power supplies, battery chargers and motor control systems.