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GALLIUM NITRIDE Gallium nitride: The next big trend in power electronics?

Author / Editor: Luke James / Johanna Erbacher

Gallium nitride (GaN) transistors are very quickly proliferating the power electronics industry and are a popular substitute in their own right for silicon-based FETs because of characteristics such as high electron mobility. In addition, GaN transistors are used in more applications such as power chargers, automobiles, and audio amplifiers.

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Gallium nitride (GaN) is a III-V semiconductor composed of gallium and nitrogen with wide bandgap.
Gallium nitride (GaN) is a III-V semiconductor composed of gallium and nitrogen with wide bandgap.
(Source: ©remotevfx - stock.adobe.com)

And if 2020 is anything to go by, it may well become the next big thing in power electronics.

What is GaN?

Most people know what silicon is or have at least heard of it. In short, the “traditional” semiconductor for most semiconductor-based applications. It’s inexpensive, we have lots of experience working with it, it’s very safe, and it’s what most of our existing semiconductor technologies work best with. However, it’s very quickly reaching its “limit” as devices become more powerful.

For quite some time now, researchers have been hard at work to find a successor to pure silicon, and this is where the likes of Silicon Carbide (SiC) - a faster, tougher, and more efficient alternative to pure silicon - and GaN come in. GaN is a direct bandgap semiconductor that has been used in blue Light-Emitting Diodes (LEDs) since the 1990s. This bandgap is much higher than silicon’s, making it a better alternative to silicon for building transistors as they exhibit less electrical resistance.

GaN transistors

GaN transistors are uniquely positioned to succeed silicon-based FETs. Due to GaN’s very high breakdown voltages, high electron mobility, and its ability to work at much higher temperatures and higher voltages, they’re ideal for use in applications like power amplifiers. In addition, high power density alongside high voltage breakdown limits have seen GaN emerge as a promising candidate for 5G cellular base station applications.

GaN transistors are driven in the same way as conventional MOSFETs. This means that they’re very easy to integrate into existing design architectures, partly the reason why 2020 saw more widespread GaN acceptance with more applications like data centers, power supplies, and automotive systems implementing them.

U.S. GaN semiconductor device market size projections, 2016 – 2027.
U.S. GaN semiconductor device market size projections, 2016 – 2027.
(Source: Grand View Research)

GaN-based power supplies

Indeed, it is power supplies - more specifically, GaN-based chargers - that saw a huge amount of interest in 2020. They had a significant presence at CES in January, and by June their proliferation in numbers and levels of use started to place pressure on the market for a more effective and practical design solution from the power industry.

This is because as the capabilities of devices like smartphones and laptops increase, so do their power demands - they need more to do more. And the fact that these devices are portable places additional pressure on manufacturers to decrease the size and weight of their chargers. Consumers simply don’t want to lug around bulky power chargers; they want something just as sleek as the device they’re using.

As GaN technology is far more efficient at converting power, it loses less energy as heat. This means that GaN power charger designs can make use of smaller, cheaper components than silicon transistor-based chargers. What this leads to is GaN-based power chargers that are both smaller and lighter while still capable of meeting or even exceeding the high-power needs of the latest devices.

Furthermore, as intelligent devices start to proliferate with more of a focus on achieving deeper human understanding and fulfilling human needs, the emerging technologies that power them (i.e., AI, facial recognition, biometrics) will lead to even higher power demands. More efficient and smaller GaN-based power supplies will likely be key for meeting the higher power needs of these next-gen devices.

The developments we’ve seen in 2020 - the growing popularity of GaN power supplies and GaN-based technologies in general - support this line of thought: That GaN transistors and innovations based on them will become the next big thing in power electronics over the course of the next decade.

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