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China Gets Set For Silicon Carbide Challenge

Are China-based SiC epi-wafer makers ready to take on US and Japan industry heavyweights, asks Compound Semiconductor.
In early September, China-based Tianyu Semiconductor Technology revealed plans to expand its SiC epitaxial wafer business “globally", after signing three contracts the month before.

Currently using two SiC CVD reactors to produce around a thousand two, three and four inch 4H-SiC epi-wafers a month, the company intends to dramatically increase production rates, and fast.

As Tianyu spokesman Vincent Zhang told Compound Semiconductor: “More systems will start in our fab in the near future to meet the booming demand for SiC devices. Production capacity is 10,000 pieces a month, which can be increased if needed."

Indeed, just days after expansion plans were revealed, the company announced a second hydrogen purifier had been added to its production line, “to support capacity expansion".

Within China, Tianyu is not alone in its pursuit of SiC epitaxial wafer market space with competitors including EpiWorld, Xiamen Powerway and TYSTC. Each produces 3- and 4-inch wafers, and each is intent on ramping up production.

But why pursue a market in several key players worldwide – including Japanese giants Showa Denko and Nippon Steel and US heavyweights Cree and II-VI – have long been churning out very nice SiC crystals and epi-wafers? For one, access to lower cost materials means a lot of companies now have the chance to ramp up production, but at least for the China-based contingent, the answer is cash.

“These companies receive subsidies from the Chinese government, which at the moment is funding a lot of power electronics with a focus on silicon carbide," explains Philippe Roussel from France-based semiconductor analyst firm Yole Developpement. “Basically the government gives technical equipment to the companies to set up a fabrication plant... some ten to twelve companies are ready to make crystals, epi-wafers and even devices."

Clearly the extra production from China will provide competition to existing SiC businesses, as well as toughen access to local markets, but are these relatively new players truly ready to compete? Showa Denko recently more than doubled four-inch SiC epi-wafer production to 1500 units a month, promising wafers with a high surface smoothness and low crystal defects. The Japan-based company has also pointedly announced its development of high quality, six inch epi-wafers. Meanwhile, one step ahead, Cree has unveiled what it describes as high quality, low micropipe six inch 4H-SiC epi-wafers, with highly uniform epitaxial layers up to 100µm thick. And this is perhaps what will make or break any newcomer to the SiC industry.

“A lot of Chinese companies are claiming capacities of 10,000 wafers a month, but what about the quality?" asks Roussell. “Device manufacturers are really struggling to get the right quality and there are typically very long waiting lists for wafers from Cree and Showa Denko as these guys deliver the quality. Having a reactor does not guarantee this."

And as Roussell also points out, most device manufacturers today are requesting six inch wafers, a size that right now appears to be just beyond the reach of China-based companies, or is it?

“We have a lot of experience in four inch SiC epitaxial and are waiting for six inch, which will come in the near future of course," say Tianyu's Zhang. “[Fabricating] a sufficient supply of 6-inch substrates is a necessity."

This spells good news to device manufacturers at the back of the queue for Cree and Showa Denko epi-wafers, but what about the all-important quality?

Tianyu, for one, has been working with the Institute of Semiconductors, Chinese Academy of Sciences, to optimise wafer quality, and now claims its product specifications reach “the advanced level in international standards".

But when asked about the quality of epi-wafers produced at Tianyu, Zhang replied: “We are working hard to get better products. There is still many aspects that need to be improved for a beginner in this field... we have long been willing to co-operate with global companies."

Perhaps device makers will have to queue for little more time yet.

 

Four inches versus six inches: Cree’s 4H n-type SiC epitaxial wafers are now available in 150mm diameter, how long until Chinese firms catch up? Credit: Cree




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