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Research & Development Smaller, faster, more energy-efficient—high-performance devices for the digital transformation

Editor: Erika Granath

The new ForMikro-LeitBAN project coordinated by the Ferdinand-Braun-Institut aims to use power transistors made with aluminum nitride to improve semiconductors' energy conversion efficiency. The project has secured 3.3 million euros in funding until 2023.

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Effective energy conversions a key for the adoption of industry 4.0.
Effective energy conversions a key for the adoption of industry 4.0.
(Source: Public Domain / Pixabay )

The growing energy demand from billions of networked devices, e-mobility, and growing data centers is a challenge for today's power semiconductors. While responsible use of resources is a crucial social challenge, decreasing our primary energy consumption isn't enough to keep up with the market's energy demand. Efficient solutions for energy conversions that allow energy to be used by all today's different systems need to be researched in order for a lack in energy supply to hinder further digital transformation.

In systems, energy can be lost when it is transformed from one form to another. It's estimated that more than three terawatt-hours of energy are lost in energy conversions each year; the amount of electricity produced by one medium-sized coal-fired power plant during a year. A new project, ForMikro-LeitBAN, coordinated by the Ferdinand-Braun-Institut was recently launched to find new solutions for energy conversion efficiency. Fast switching power semiconductor devices that enable high power density are the key to increasing the efficiency and reducing the size of power electronic systems. This type of tool this will also help decrease our carbon footprint.

3.3 million euros in funding secured until 2023

One of the primary goals with the ForMikro-LeitBAN project is to study how aluminum nitride can be used by semiconductors in both existing devices and future systems. The project will receive 3.3 million euros in funding from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research within the ForMikro program until 2023.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to increase the efficiency of electrical converters and power amplifiers with conventional silicon-based power components. Therefore, researchers must search for new efficient semiconductor materials and bring the alternatives they find to the market fast.

Low dislocation density enables fast and efficient switching devices

The project partners rely on aluminum nitride (AlN). Despite offering up to 10,000 times fewer conduction losses than silicon devices, AIN is an understudied semiconductor material. The material has an extremely high breakdown strength and thermal conductivity.

Free-standing insulating AlN wafers will be used as material basis. The AlN epitaxy on foreign substrates such as silicon carbide can reduce a material’s dislocation density by five orders of magnitude. This offers the potential for fast and efficient switching devices while maintaining high reliability.

Effective energy conversions a key for the adoption of industry 4.0

The novel AlN components are based on well-researched GaN technology. The technology has, however, not previously been used in transitions from conventional foreign substrates as, for example, silicon carbide, sapphire, or silicon to free-standing AlN substrates. ForMikro-LeitBAN aims to study how these AlN wafers develop in different situations and test them in a tailor-made device process.

Test systems for millimeter-wave applications and for power electronic energy converters qualify the new highly efficient AlN devices for applications in corresponding systems. This technology is currently being prepared for industrial use. An industrial advisory board supports the consortium's work: Infineon for power electronics, UMS for millimeter-wave technology, and III/V-Reclaim for the recycling of AlN wafers.

There's always some energy loss when energy is transformed from one form to another, moved from one place to another, or from one system to another. Thanks to ForMikro-LeitBAN, semiconductors' energy conversion efficiency will hopefully be improved significantly in the next years. This will be key for future artificial intelligence applications and the adoption of industry 4.0.

The ForMikro-LeitBAN project is a collaboration between:

• Ferdinand-Braun-Institut (FBH): AlN device design and development

• Fraunhofer IISB, Erlangen (IISB): AlN crystal growth, wafer manufacturing

• TU Bergakademie-Freiberg (IAP): Process module development, analytics

• Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU): material analysis

• Brandenburgische Technische Universität Cottbus-Senftenberg (BTU): AlN millimeter-wave systems

• Technische Universität Berlin (TUB): AlN power electronic systems

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