The Calm Before the Wide-Bandgap Storm

Jason Lomberg, North American Editor, PSD


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Last month, we did a PSDcast with PowerAmerica, a Department of Energy institute tasked with accelerating the commercialization of wide-bandgap (WBG) semiconductors. And with the Applied Power Electronics Conference and Exposition (APEC) right around the corner (or closer, depending on when you read this), we’re about to be inundated with GaN and SiC.

These days, I can’t open an email, talk to anyone, or walk an inch without coming across gallium nitride (GaN) and silicon carbide (SiC). And for good reason.

Month after month, show after show, in articles, podcasts, and products, at home, on your workbench, and computer screen, the hottest industry topic by far is wide-bandgap semiconductors. WBG could upend the world of power electronics.

Wide-bandgap semiconductors are a crucial ingredient in green and blue LEDs and lasers, RF amplifiers, and anything else with a reduced form factor and higher cooling requirements. And while silicon chips have reigned supreme for half a century, they’ve reached their operation limit because of their low bandgap, high switching losses, and poor thermal performance.

It all boils down to efficiency. (Doesn’t it always?) The reduced energy losses, higher power density, and higher switching frequencies associated with WBG are critical for U.S economic, health, and security interests. The DoE points out that U.S. industrial plants consume 3.32 quadrillion Btu (quads) of electricity, and that number is expected to grow by 30% to 4.34 quads in the next couple decades. So energy efficiency is imperative.

The answer is WBG – widespread (>90%) adoption of these highly efficient devices could reduce worldwide energy consumption by 25%. PowerAmerica notes that WBG chips will eliminate up to 90% of the energy losses in today’s rectifiers that perform power conversions in data centers. But this all hinges on greater market penetration for WGB. And that’s why every John Q supplier and OEM is proselytizing for GaN and SiC.

Like every bleeding-edge technology, WBG faces a cost hurdle. But DoE institutes like PowerAmerica – which launched in 2015 with a five-year budget of $140 million to accelerate the adoption of SiC and GaN – and various private and public interests will drive down prices. And the future looks bright.

The DoE estimates that GaN and SiC will claim 22% of the $15 billion global market for discrete power electronic components by 2020, with the WBG share of the global lighting market totaling $84 billion. Our industry will play a fundamental role in this grand paradigm shift.