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GaN ICs Kassiopeia project will take GaN ICs to outer space

Author / Editor: Luke James / Nicole Kareta

SweGaN AB, the University of Bristol, and the Ferdinand-Braun-Institut, have partnered up on a project that will seek to design and manufacture new GaN-based devices that will be launched into outer space.

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This is a SEM image of gallium nitride MMICs.
This is a SEM image of gallium nitride MMICs.
(Source: University of Bristol)

A European project aims to build a high-efficiency antenna receiver for space systems based on gallium nitride (GaN) on a silicon carbide (SiC) substrate. Known as the “Kassiopeia” project, it involves the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, the Ferdinand-Braun-Institut (FBH) in Germany, and SweGaN in Sweden to develop a Ka-band monolithic microwave integrated circuit (MMIC) receiver.

A European collaboration

The Kassiopeia project, which is funded entirely by the European Space Agency (ESA), was launched just last month in April to build an independent European supply chain, from SiC substrates and GaN device processing and power amplifiers.

Led by Germany’s FBH, the project aims to achieve this goal by developing highly efficient GaN and alimunum nitride (AlN) devices using novel epitaxy, processing, and circuit concepts. FBH will also contribute its industry-compatible Ka-band MMIC technology on 100 mm GaN-on-SiC wafers to the project. FBH is using its Iridium sputter-gate technology which reduces dynamic losses (also known as “gate lagging”) by half boosting device reliability, which are particularly important for devices destined for outer space. According to FBH, the solution is not only capable of reducing gate lagging by as much as two times less than competing technologies but can also dramatically improve device reliability.

A Ka-band MMIC receiver

The MMIC receiver uses SweGaN’s QuanFINE GaN-on-SiC epitaxial materials. These help to boost the efficiency of beam steering antenna devices used in satellite communications, 5G base station, and radar applications. SweGaN will also supply in-house developed semi-insulating SiC substrates for evaluation. The Swedish epiwafer specialist company currently provides epitaxial material to major manufacturers of components and devices for applications including satellite communication, telecom, and power electronics for solar inverters and electric vehicles.

"We are excited to partner in this ESA-aligned project with the prestigious GaN research groups in Europe, FBH and Uni. of Bristol,” said Jr-Tai Chen, CTO of SweGaN. “SweGaN will bring its proprietary QuanFINE buffer-free manufacturing process for GaN-on-SiC epiwafers to significantly boost innovation at the material level for Ka band devices.”

Finally, the University of Bristol will enable the project to research direct thermal measurements on active GaN transistors by using micro-Raman thermography and advanced device modelling.

Spaceborne devices

The ultra-wide bandgap semiconductors that are being researched by the Kassiopeia team have exceptional physical and electrical properties, it is said. These devices are typically made from aluminum nitride, boron nitride, or diamond. As a result, they can operate at much higher temperatures, voltages, and frequencies than silicon.

This makes them much more powerful than Si-based power electronics. They’re also able to reduce the footprint of power substations by up to 100x, thus saving space and improving grid reliability and the prospect of integrating of renewable energy sources. While traditional grids are built to deliver power in one direction—from power plants to consumers—renewable sources need more flexibility; their batteries need to be recharged (i.e., power needs to flow backwards) when there is not enough sun or wind.

The project’s new research will reportedly now enable the development of a “smart grid” that can meet this multidirectional need, and the ensuing technology will provide advantages in performance and reliability, which are particularly important for spaceborne applications.

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