Alex Lidow, Efficient Power Conversion
Enhancement-mode gallium nitride transistors have been commercially available for over five years. Commercially available gallium nitride (GaN) FETs are designed to be both higher performance and lower cost than state-of-the-art silicon-based power MOSFETs. This achievement marks the first time in 60 years that any technology rivals silicon both in terms of performance and cost, and signals the ultimate displacement of the venerable, but aging power MOSFET.
Over these past five years the number of applications utilizing GaN FETs has increased exponentially. Originally designed to improve the efficiency of isolated and non-isolated DC-DC converters, surprising new applications have surfaced that are enabled by the GaN FET’s ultra-fast switching speed. Examples of new applications enabled by GaN technology include, high-resolution LiDAR for autonomous vehicles as well as enhanced human-machine interfaces, RF envelope tracking for wireless networks such as 4G/LTE, wireless power transfer that eliminate the need for power cords, and high resolution MRI systems that more precisely isolate tissue irregularities in humans. GaN FETs have also demonstrated an ability to operate in extreme radiation environments, which opens many new possibilities for satellite power systems.
In addition to these completely new applications, GaN transistors have made great progress in high-efficiency DC-DC converters. Typically outperforming silicon-based systems by a wide margin, GaN FET-based systems are always smaller in size, more efficient, and have proven to be extremely reliable. In a recent example that shows how much GaN transistors increase power density, Efficient Power Conversion Corporation (EPC) developed a fully isolated and regulated 500W eighth brick. The company also released a 500W fully regulated and isolated 48VIN – 12 VOUT eighth brick demonstration system using 80 V EPC2021 eGan FETs on the primary side and 60 V EPC2020 eGaN FETs on the secondary side as a synchronous rectifier.
As an example of the rapid development of gallium nitride technology, in 2014 EPC introduced the first enhancement-mode GaN integrated circuits – a family of monolithic half-bridge devices that further improve system speed and power density. More complex ICs will follow. Progress in the development and applications of GaN technology has been very rapid and reminiscent of Moore’s Law in silicon-based digital ICs. About half of the revenues expected in GaN transistor global revenue composition in 2018 are expected from applications that did not exist before GaN power transistors were launched in 2010.
Many forecasting agencies, such as IHS and Yole Development, are predicting GaN transistor revenues will top $1B by 2021. The current leader in the GaN power transistors, with over 90% market share, EPC, predicts that new end-use applications, which did not even exist when GaN FETs first became available, will be almost half of the market by 2018.
GaN technology is ushering in a new era of innovation in power electronics. Reliable, faster, smaller, and lower cost to manufacture than their ancestral silicon-based MOSFET, GaN transistors are bringing new life to existing products by greatly improving the efficiency of power conversion and are providing new possibilities for completely new products that enhance our every-day lives.