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Commercial GaN: MA COM Is Ready And Waiting

With GaN-on-silicon technology entering mass production, industry power players are poised for action. Compound Semiconductor finds out M/A-COM's plans.

M/A-COM plans to develop GaN-on-silicon devices for RF power markets including land mobile, radio and military communications, CATV and small cell networks.

As GaN-on-silicon technology readies for mass production, US-based M/A-COM is preparing to seize significant market share.

In February this year, US provider of high performance semiconductors, M/A-COM, bought long-time GaN RF semiconductor developer, Nitronex, for $26 million in cash. Then, just weeks later it teamed up with UK-based wafer maker IQE to produce four, six and eight inch GaN-on-silicon epiwafers, and claims to be in 'active discussions with select companies' to license out its IP.

M/A-COM isn't a stranger to industry acquisitions. Late last year, it completed its tender of RF device maker, Mindspeed Technologies, US, boosting its SiGe technology presence. And now, Nitronex, looks set to secure its GaN-on-silicon RF power ambitions.

"Nitronex has firstly allowed us to establish a design centre for RF power in the North Carolina region, and we are drawing on the talent pool here," explains Doug Carlson, director of strategy for aerospace and defence at M/A-COM. "We now have the largest portfolio of GaN products in the industry and we are building on that position."

Indeed, while M/A-COM already boasted a strong line-up of RF power products in pulsed avionics, snapping up Nitronex extends its reach to continuous wave applications. With both in hand, the company can now develop devices for myriad RF power markets from land mobile, radio and military communications to broadcasting, CATV and small cell networks.

And as Carlson adds: "Over the next couple of months you should anticipate seeing GaN-on-silicon [devices] with higher power levels for continuous wave applications and with plastic packaging formats. [These will target] power communication applications and will be designed with technologies such as envelope tracking in mind."

But the Nitronex acquisition and subsequent licensing agreements are not all about providing more devices for more markets. As mainstream adoption of GaN-on-silicon technology gathers momentum, M/A-COM executives are keen to convey that their company can now provide the solid, sustainable supply chain that end-users crave.

Company announcements are peppered with guarantees of 'surety of supply' and intentions to 'create the necessary supply chain to accelerate GaN adoption'. And both Carlson, and his colleague Suja Ramnath, senior vice president and general manager of RF and Microwave are quick to emphasise the same.

"What M/A-COM brings to the table... is our channel to market and applications knowledge," highlights Ramnath. "For, example, penetration into the radar market, customers look for a multi-decade sustainable supply chain. We've been around for well over sixty years and have supported these markets of decades."

And as Carlson adds: "It's best to think of our IP licensing program for GaN-on-silicon technology in terms of establishing an industry supply chain that allows major OEMs to adopt the technology with confidence. This is the purpose of the licensing program."

Suja Ramnath believes M/A-COM will achieve GaN-on-silicon market dominance within the decade

But licensing out GaN-on-silicon IP may not be so straightforward.

Semiconductor analysis business, Yole Développement, and patent business, KnowMade, recently warned of an upcoming 'IP battle' for GaN-on-silicon substrates.

Thanks to lower costs and CMOS compatibility, Yole analyst Hong Lin and KnowMade chief executive Nicolas Baron, expect the technology to be widely adopted by power electronics and RF applications. However, both highlight how key GaN players including Toshiba, Samsung, Soitec and Azzurro have reinforced critical patent filings on the technical challenges of depositing GaN onto silicon.

Throw in the recent M/A-COM-Nitronex acquisition and interest from Toshiba and Samsung, and the analysts predict an 'IP battle' in the next three years. M/A-COM claims not to be concerned, with Ramnath asserting: "We have vetted our IP position prior to the Nitronex acquisition... and are satisfied that for our applications, we are well positioned and have established a robust defensible position for ourselves."

So assuming IP issues don't stymie progress, when can we actually expect widespread industry adoption of GaN-on-silicon technology for power applications? From M/A-COM's perspective, sooner than you might think.

Within two to five years Ramnath reckons M/A-COM will be supplying products into numerous applications, with the company achieving market dominance within the decade.

And as Carlson adds: "Volumes will come up in the next two to five years, and exiting that five year period, the cost structure of GaN-on-silicon will be on par with silicon. One can then envision the market disruption that will happen."

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