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GaN power semiconductors to go from zero to heroes

Despite gallium nitride being so illusive, IMS Research says that by 2021, the market for power devices using this material will exceed $1 billion

The emerging market for GaN power semiconductors is forecast to grow from almost zero in 2011 to over $1 billion in 2021, according to a new report from IMS Research.

The research firm analysed all of the key end markets for power products and found that power supplies, PV inverters and industrial motor drives would be the three main drivers of growth.

While SiC power devices have been around for some years, GaN power semiconductors have only recently appeared on the market. One of the main reasons is that GaN is a wide bandgap material which offers similar performance benefits to SiC but may be cheaper to produce.

“This is possible because GaN power devices will be grown on a larger, lower cost Silicon substrate”, says Richard Eden, Senior Market Analyst and author of "The World Market for Silicon Carbide and Gallium Nitride Power Semiconductors - 2012 edition". “The key market driver is the speed at which GaN-on-Silicon devices can achieve price parity with Silicon MOSFETs, IGBTs or rectifiers with equivalent performance.”

IMS Research says the speed of GaN transistor developments has accelerated in the last two years, possibly due to its huge growth potential.

The launch of International Rectifier’s “GaNpowIR” and EPC’s “eGaN FET” devices started the low voltage market in 2010. The emergence of Transphorm and its 600 V GaN transistors in 2011 created considerable interest in the prospects of GaN competing with high voltage MOSFETs and IGBTs. Six of the world’s top ten discrete power semiconductor suppliers are planning to launch GaN power devices in the near future, and some may already be making devices for in-house end equipment.

IMS Research’s report analyses applications ranging from consumer electronics to industrial equipment and renewable energy. The first applications to adopt will be power supplies where the total system cost savings outweigh the unit price penalty of the device.

These include PC & notebook adaptors and servers as well as domestic appliances like air-conditioners, where efficiency improvements are being driven by Government initiatives or regulations. Once reliability and other potential problems are resolved, PV micro-inverters, electric vehicle battery charging and other new applications are likely to adopt GaN power devices in the future.

However, IMS Research says that there are some barriers to main-stream market acceptance of GaN power devices.

The first is availability, as few GaN transistors are available in mass production. Competing manufacturers’ products are non-standard and there are no second-sources.

Secondly, the technology lacks maturity. Overall device performance and GaN material defect rates need improvement.

A third issue is design inertia; the need to educate customers about both the potential benefits of GaN and how to use the devices.

Having said that, GaN could be the power of the future.
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