– Automotive News, December 19, 2016 – Alex has been chosen as 1 of 60 people driving the self-driving movment
Gallium nitride (GaN) is a better semiconductor than silicon. There are many crystals that are better than silicon, but the problem has always been that they are far too expensive to be used in every application where silicon is used. But, GaN can be grown as an inexpensive thin layer on top of a standard silicon wafer enabling devices that are faster, smaller, more efficient, and less costly than their aging silicon counterparts.
This breakthrough for growing GaN on silicon can be viewed as a means for the extension of Moore’s Law, a “law” that has run out of steam in the past few years due to the performance limitations of silicon. However, just classifying it as an extension of Moore’s Law is proving to be too narrow a view of the impact of GaN technology on the way we live. In fact, GaN is proving to play a key role in a radical shift in how we allocate our planet’s precious, and dwindling, resources. Let’s look at four ways GaN — in end-use applications — is helping us be kinder and gentler on our planet.
Autonomous vehicles and the transportation revolution
LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) as a way to measure the distance between two objects has been around for over 50 years. The way this technology works is that the LiDAR system flashes a beam of light and measures the time it takes for that beam to bounce off a distant object and return to the detector sitting next to the original light source.
LiDAR has become a core technology behind autonomous vehicles because it can provide a fast (virtually instantaneous) and extremely accurate 3D image (or three-dimensional point cloud) of the surrounding environment (see figure 1). The reason LiDAR can paint such a fast and accurate image is that the lasers are “fired” by GaN transistors and integrated circuits. The speed and accuracy at which GaN can fire the laser is fast enough to create high-resolution images needed for the fastest autonomous racecars.
Autonomous vehicles will become a reality, although the exact timeline is still uncertain. When this happens, imagine the impact it will have on our entire transportation system and the urban landscape. Individual car ownership will be a thing of the past, since we will be able to order a driverless car for the number of passengers and the range needed at that moment. Parking lots will disappear, road congestion will be reduced, and, most significantly, traffic deaths will be eliminated.
In addition, the cost to the consumer for vehicle transportation will be significantly lower as less capital will need to be invested in a vehicle, and fewer taxes will have to be paid for transportation infrastructure. We can assume that the majority of these autonomous vehicles will be electric, thus further reducing the stress on energy consumption, air quality and greenhouse gas emission.
Drone package delivery and the logistics revolution
Another type of autonomous vehicle that will reduce stress on our environment is the drone. As with autonomous vehicles, GaN-based LiDAR is key to autonomy with drones, but drones have a different challenge; they have limited range when powered by batteries. Imagine the amount of traffic that would be reduced if all our small packages were to be delivered by drones. This is not a dream – it is now possible, thanks to the ability to charge drones in mid-air using wireless power transfer.
Shown in figure 2 is a drone being charged from a small antenna driven by GaN transistors. These low-cost and light weight charging platforms could be mounted on every street light, thus enabling drones to recharge as needed while on their package delivery missions. These antennae can also be fitted with a battery pack and a solar panel. In this configuration they can create long-distance trails of autonomous charging stations that could give access to the most remote and dangerous locations on our planet for critical deliveries of food or medical supplies.
Eliminating power cords
Wireless recharging of drones is just one example of our ability to transfer energy without wires thanks to the speed and efficiency of GaN. On a broader scale, we are on the verge of eliminating power cords in the home using a technology called resonant magnetic energy transfer. This technology was invented at MIT earlier this century and serves as the means for “cutting the cord” and freeing the home and work environment from messy power cords.
In figure 3 is a desktop that has been built with a low cost antenna just under the top surface. Using GaN integrated circuits to achieve efficiencies similar to devices with power cords, this desktop is able to directly power an array of diverse electronic devices positioned anywhere on the surface.
Imagine this type of powered tabletop in your kitchen, or in the conference room at work, or in your living room powering your sound system and TV without wires. A world without power cords would be more efficient – TVs, radios and illuminated artwork could be hung anywhere on the wall without the need for wall sockets and unsightly power cords. In addition, not having to “plug in” would eliminate countless electrical fires that destroy many homes and lives each year.
Making artificial intelligence and deep learning less harmful to our environment
We are experiencing a fast escalation of the demand for massive server installations to support big data, cloud computing, deep learning, and artificial intelligence. According to Fujitsu, data center energy consumption accounts for up to 2% of all electricity use worldwide. Even though there is no way the demand for computing ability can be reversed, computing can be made less costly to our environment by reducing the need for energy, and here is another major contribution of GaN technology.
Due to GaN’s high efficiency, we can contribute to the Open Compute energy consumption goal by saving between 10 and 20% of the energy used by data center server farms. Additionally, significant energy savings can be harvested from the reduced need for cooling of these massive server installations. Now, all we have to worry about is whether the computers will be smarter than humans!
GaN technology is enabling many new applications that were just not possible with silicon semiconductors. Given above are just a few examples of how GaN technology is changing the way we live. Efficient Power Conversion (EPC) was founded based on the goal of replacing silicon semiconductors with a technology that is far more efficient and lower cost to produce. As it turns out, GaN is doing so much more than just saving money by replacing aging silicon components, GaN is enabling new applications that significantly reduce the resources we need to drain from our planet while making our lives safer, healthier, and more fun.
Velodyne will continue to sell spinning “puck”-style LiDAR units for automated vehicles developed for on-demand ride services, though the new non-spinning solid-state chip, developed with Los Angeles-based Efficient Power Corp., or EPC, is designed to be integrated into the exterior of vehicles for retail car buyers, Jellen said. The new chips are tiny, just 4 square millimeters, yet highly efficient owing to a new monolithic gallium nitride integrated circuit developed with EPC.
In January of 2016 I made several predictions for the then-nascent year. Predictions were made for new markets such as wireless charging, augmented reality, autonomous vehicles, and advances in medical diagnostics and internet access. Progress in these markets was made on all fronts, sometimes faster and sometimes slower than anticipated. So here we are about to start a new year and, perhaps foolishly I am ready once again to predict the future.
Wireless Power Will Become Mainstream: Full disclosure: I have made this exact same prediction for the last three years! Wireless power will continue to gain traction with increased consumer demand charged by new products and applications. We have already seen companies such as Hewlett Packard, Dell, jjPlus, and Witricity introduce, or announce their intention to introduce products based on Airfuel standards. Qi deployments continue at a rapid pace. Both standards can be bridged with multi-mode transmitters that work with anything. Qualcomm has included the Airfuel format into their Snapdragon chipsets thus reducing the cost to enable hundreds of millions of cell phones, tablets, and Chromebooks. Automotive companies such as Toyota and GM have introduced wireless charging in the center console of passenger vehicles. Wireless charging of electric vehicles has been standardized and deployed. Furniture makers such as IKEA are embedding wireless chargers into desks, end tables, lamps, and chair armrests. Holding back the rate of deployment is the convenience factor. Convenience is still the major concern with consumers’ complaints about Qi slow rate of charging, and the required precision alignment between sending and receiving units causing disappointment. Airfuel standards promise to remedy these issues, and enable one large surface such as a desktop to be used to change multiple devices simultaneously, but deployment has lagged due to the small number of Airfuel compatible products available. As far as the consumer is concerned, everyone hates power cords and therefore wireless power can’t come soon enough! So, once again, I predict that 2017 will be the year that wireless power “arrives.”
Augmented Reality Moved to Center Stage: As virtual reality climbs into the consumer living room through video games, sports broadcasts, and other creative content, augmented reality (AR) has moved even faster than expected into our consciousness, if not yet the living room. Pokémon GO was a viral AR hit that gave the consumer a taste of the possibilities derived from mixing our real-life surroundings with a virtual world. The astronauts used Microsoft HoloLens at the International Space Station. Magic Leap raised over $1B in venture capital and has teased us with their extraordinary AR demonstrations. Augmented reality will increasingly be used for such purposes as 3D product design, remote surgery, and education training (to name a few). While virtual reality is primarily confined to entertainment, the use cases for augmented reality are seemingly limitless. The affordability of augmented reality products will become its own reality in 2017.
Autonomous Cars Will Advance – But Keep Both Hands On The Wheel For Now: This was the same headline we used a year ago for our 2016 predictions. I think we get extra points for calling this one correctly! While the technology to enable autonomous vehicles has advanced at an extraordinary pace, we are still a few years away from the proliferation of consumer driven autonomous vehicles as we work out the technology and the regulatory issues. We have seen “beta-testing” of autonomous cars in Singapore and Pittsburg. Google continues to rack up millions of miles with an enviable safety record. Ford, Volkswagen Group, Nissan, Baidu, BMW, Hyundai, Toyota, Renault, Volvo, GM, and Mercedes all have on-going road tests with their own autonomous creations. We also saw beta testing of an autopilot on Tesla vehicles. This latter deployment has caused controversy due to the death of at least one driver using the autopilot in May 2016. The balance between risk and reward has yet to be found, and Tesla has both updated their systems, and restricted functionality while more experience is gained under controlled conditions. In the meantime, we will see more and more autonomy of vehicles under specific driving circumstances such as parking, freeway driving, and low speed stop-and-go. One star has emerged from all the deployments and beta testing; LiDAR (Light Distancing and Ranging). This method of creating accurate and rapid digital 3D images is used by all the key automotive companies experimenting with autonomous vehicles except for Tesla. Tesla’s unique combination of radar and cameras is the outlier and was called out as a key reason for the May 2016 fatality.
LiDAR is also appearing in various unmanned aerial vehicles for survey and navigation applications. LiDAR is beginning to show up in augmented reality systems to rapidly and cheaply generate an accurate image of “reality”.
In future years, autonomous vehicles may need vehicle-to-vehicle communications and will allow passengers to spend more time on their smartphones for both communications and entertainment. This, in turn, will drive demand for greater wireless bandwidth, 5G implementation, and wireless charging in our cars to prevent smartphones from running out of battery power.
Internet Enablement In Underdeveloped Nations Will Grow at a Greater Clip: While most people on the planet are still without Internet access, coverage via wireless technologies will continue to accelerate. Balloons (such as Google Loon), satellites (such as the Google-SpaceX venture), and high altitude drones (Facebook) are the most likely solutions to serve much of the underdeveloped world in the coming years and decades. Facebook has flown their drone, Google is flying their balloons, satellites are under development at SpaceX in conjunction with Google. In addition, communications companies such as AT&T have announced their deployment of drones equipped with 4G mini base stations. These drones will deliver expanded bandwidth to concerts and sporting events where local cell stations might become temporarily overloaded. This is a stepping stone to the deployment of such systems to areas of our planet where there are high population densities but low internet access.
Improved Medical Diagnostics Will Gain More Attention: New, early detection techniques such as nano-RNA and micro imagining will make significant inroads towards early detection of certain types of cancers. For example, XRAY-in-a-pill colonoscopies will gain European approval in 2017 and will eliminate the key barriers to early detection of Colon Cancer. US approval is now expected in 2018 and GE Healthcare has been selected to produce the product.
Servers will be limited by their power density: In the past few years the use of servers has shifted towards cloud computing, artificial intelligence, and deep learning. All three of these trends have caused a rapid growth in the inter-server communications requirement. Decisions and computations need to be made inside the server farm faster and faster to keep up with the growing use of massive parallel computation crunching big data to come up with the best recommendations for medical treatments, advertising campaigns, autonomous vehicle control algorithms, and personal digital assistants. A new limitation just now surfacing is the density of the server itself. We need to pack servers closer together, and have the functional elements inside each server packed more tightly to speed up our computation and communication. Getting the heat out of the server is preventing improved performance. Making the servers more energy efficient has now moved up from a cost-savings on the electric bill to a bottleneck to performance. OpenRack and OpenCompute projects have all tried to address this key limitation by increasing the distribution voltage inside the server itself. This, plus transitioning to new materials such as gallium nitride in the power conversion systems can reduce overall power consumption by 20% and increase server densities by 30-40%.
Moore’s Law Continues its Decline: This is consistent with our prediction from last year. Moore’s Law – the technology pact conceived by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore some 51 years ago – continues its decline. Even Intel has backed away from this promise. In 2016 technology companies, facing slow growth in end markets and increasing technology development costs engaged in an unprecedented number of mergers and acquisitions. In 2017 the consolidation will continue with semiconductor executives seeking growth or golden exits through acquisition. These activities will reduce the motivation for innovation.
GaN Will Continue To Power Advancement: The ability to fuel technology advancement, including the applications above, will require significantly increased speed, voltage, bandwidth and efficiency, not to mention meaningful miniaturization. As silicon reaches its performance limitations, other new entrants are delivering significantly greater performance with rapidly decreasing costs and hundreds of new applications in mainstream markets. Independent GaN companies will set the pace while established power silicon producers will downplay the significance of the technology.