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Spirit Electronics “Tech Talk” with EPC CEO, Alex Lidow

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EPC Global Headquarters – El Segundo, CA

 

EPC CEO, Alex Lidow sits down with Spirit Electronics CEO, Marti McCurdi to discuss  how EPC has worked with industry leaders over the past decade to test high-reliability GaN products for military and space applications.

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My Predictions for 2017

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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.”

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Wireless power enables the remote powering and charging of the myriad of battery-powered devices that have infiltrated our daily lives.

Key Takeaway: Wireless charging will be a reality in 2017 led by systems deployed on cars, furniture, and for phones, tablets, and small notebooks.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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LiDAR enables applications such as real-time motion detection for video gaming, computers that respond to hand gestures, and fully autonomous vehicles.

Key Takeaway: Augmented reality, and autonomous vehicles will garner increasing attention throughout 2017 with real products gaining traction later in the decade. LiDAR has emerged as a key enabling technology.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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LiDAR (Light Distancing and Ranging) uses pulsed lasers to rapidly create a three dimensional image or map of a surrounding area.

 

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.

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Companies such as ViaSat and Boeing are teaming up to create and produce satellites that will deliver high-speed internet to remote areas around the world.

Key Takeaway: Internet access to the 4 billion people currently without will be looking for an airborne solution. Drones? Balloons? Satellites?

 

 

 

 

 

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.

colonoscopy pill

Check-Cap’s ingestible pill will change colon cancer screening

 

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%.

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Data centers consume vast amounts of electrical energy. Operating power for these centers runs from megawatts to tens of megawatts.

Key Takeaway: Server performance requirements are being driven by increased use of cloud computing, artificial intelligence, and deep learning. A new bottleneck has emerged – power density.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Moore’s law refers to an observation made by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965. He noticed that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits had doubled every year since their invention.

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.

 

Key Takeaway: Moore’s Law’s decline has catalyzed massive mergers and acquisitions in the semiconductor space. Innovation has slowed to a crawl with only a few players with the resources needed to advance the technology.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Alex co-authored the first textbook on GaN transistors, “GaN Transistors for Efficient Power Conversion”, now in its second edition published by John Wiley and Sons.

Key Takeaway: Gallium nitride is picking up the baton and enabling vast new markets for semiconductors while changing the way we live.

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Four Industries that will be Transformed by GaN

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In my last post we discussed a few automotive applications that will be big markets for GaN technology. But this is just a small part of the GaN story!

GaN transistors such as eGaN FETs from EPC are today available with performance 10 times better than the best commercial silicon.  What happens when several devices are integrated to create a system on a single chip? What happens when the performance of that chip is 100 times better than silicon?

In this posting we will look out 5 to 10 years and see how a transformative change in semiconductor technology is transformative to our world in almost every way.

Transforming Space

GaN enables satellitesPower converters used in harsh environments, such as space, high-altitude flight, or high-reliability military applications must be resistant to damage or malfunctions caused by radiation. eGaN FETs today perform 40 times better electrically while being able to withstand 10 times the radiation compared with the aging Rad Hard power MOSFET.  This enables entirely new architectures for satellite power and data transmission.  Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, has set as his mission to reduce the cost of putting objects in space by a factor of 10.  With eGaN technology applied to satellites we can reduce the size of the electronics, eliminate the shielding required, and greatly improve the performance of the data communications.  This eliminates solar panels, makes the entire system smaller and lighter weight, and extends the life of the satellite.  A factor of two reduction in weight is within our reach with today’s technology, whereas a factor of 10 is possible when eGaN technology is used to produce entire systems on a single chip.  Multiply the impact of SpaceX with eGaN technology and we will change the way we use space and accelerate the exploration (and possible colonization?) of our universe.

Transforming the Machine Interface

LiDARLiDAR uses high speed pulsed lasers to rapidly create a three dimensional image or map of a surrounding area.  One of the earliest adopters of this technology was the “driverless” car. Today’s eGaN FETs are enabling new and broader applications such as 3D printing, real-time motion detection for augmented reality glasses, computers that respond to hand gestures as opposed to touch screens, and fully autonomous vehicles. As eGaN technology evolves, LiDAR can be further improved in both resolution and cost.  Projects are already underway to include “3D Awareness” in our cell phones. Imagine if phones could understand the space around us.  We will be able to get directions in a new, more comprehensive way. An iPhone today can provide the location of the building you desire, but with LiDAR, 3-D mapping could lead you straight to a specific office.

Transforming the Use of Electricity

wires suck Wires suck.  Today, we need wires to supply power to our ever-growing collection of electrically-powered gadgets.  For those gadgets that are so completely indispensable, we need to take them with us at all times, and they need batteries that must be recharged all-too-frequently.  Expected in late 2015, wireless power systems using eGaN technology will begin to unload this wired burden by providing energy wirelessly to charge cell phones and tablets.   By integrating thin transmission coils in the floor tiles and the walls of buildings and homes, the need for wall sockets will be eliminated altogether!  This same wireless power technology can be used to charge electric vehicles when parked over a transmitting coil embedded in the floor of a garage.  A project is underway to embed wireless chargers at bus stops.  Eventually, in a one-minute stop, a bus can get enough charge to drive a mile to the next bus stop.  This could eliminate the need for most of the heavy batteries and overhead electrical systems that burden electric buses today.

eGaN technology makes possible the efficient transmission of electricity at safe frequencies that are difficult for their silicon transistor ancestors.  Taking eGaN technology to higher voltages and higher frequencies extends the wireless power transfer distance.  Integrating eGaN technology into complete systems on a chip enable wireless power systems to be embedded into almost every device that consumes electricity.

Transforming Medicine

GaN transforming medicineWe are all getting older every day, and, as we age, we develop more opportunities for frailties and chronic health problems.  Today there are major advances in fields such as implantable systems, imaging, and prosthetics that are enabled by eGaN technology.

Wireless power is already having an impact on implantable systems such as heart pumps.  Beyond just artificial hearts, many other medical systems can also benefit.  As Dr. Pramod Bonde of the University of Pittsburg Medical Center speculated, “[wireless power] can be leveraged to simplify sensor systems, to power medical implants and reduce electrical wiring in day-to-day care of the patients.”

But it’s not just eGaN technology in wireless power that is transforming medicine.  Imaging technology is also improving by leaps and bounds!  The resolution of MRI machines is being enhanced through the development of smaller and more efficient sensing coils using eGaN FETs and ICs.  Diagnostic colonoscopies are about to become a thing of the past due to today’s eGaN FETs.  These types of non-invasive imaging breakthroughs significantly reduce the cost of health care through early warning and non-invasive diagnostics. As we integrate entire systems on a single eGaN chip, miniaturization and image resolution improves the standard of care while medical costs come down.

eGaN Technology –Transforming the Future

In this posting, we talked about a few of the transformations that will be enabled as eGaN technology evolves.  EPC is taking the 10-times gap in performance between eGaN FETs and MOSFETs and improving it to a 1000-times gap.  This technology is also being applied to integrated circuits made be EPC in eGaN technology.  EPC is pursing parallel paths – discrete power semiconductors and fully integrated circuits that form building blocks for multiple applications, but will ultimately evolve into complete systems-on-a-chip for very high performance, low cost, and high value-added applications like the ones discussed above.

The eGaN journey has just begun!

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Is GaN Disruptive? Revisiting the Criteria.

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In March 2010 Efficient Power Conversion (EPC) proudly launched our GaN technology at the CIPS conference in Nuremberg, Germany.  Parts and development kits were readily available off-the shelf and therefore designers could immediately get started with a new state-of-the-art semiconductor technology.

 

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Figure 1: EPC2036 die photo.  This family of devices was the first to break the price of MOSFETs with the same voltage and on-resistance.

 

 

 

 

At that time, we listed four key attributes we believed a new semiconductor technology needed in order to be really disruptive to the end markets.  A lot has happened in the six years since.  GaN has continued to ascend as the presumptive replacement for the aging power MOSFET, yet there are still a few design engineers and technical managers that remain skeptical.  So let’s look again at these four key attributes and see where GaN stands in addressing them.

 

The Four Requirements:

1 – Does it enable significant new applications?

2 – Is it easy to use?

3 – Is it VERY cost effective to the user?

4 – Is it reliable?

 

 

Does it enable significant new applications?

GaN transistors and integrated circuits are significantly faster and smaller than the best silicon MOSFETs.  Today, commercially available eGaN® FETs and ICs are 5 to 50 times better than the silicon state-of-the-art.  This large jump in performance has led to several new applications that were not possible until the availability of GaN technology.  But eGaN FETs, and in fact any GaN transistor from any of several manufacturers, are still several orders of magnitude away from GaN’s theoretical performance limits.  There is a learning curve ahead that only widens the performance gap between GaN and silicon, and continues to enable new applications and transform entire end markets. Here are just a few examples:

Transforming Space

Power converters used in harsh environments, such as space, high-altitude flight, or high-reliability military applications must be resistant to damage or malfunctions caused by radiation. eGaN FETs today perform 40 times better electrically while being able to withstand 10 times the radiation compared with the aging Rad Hard power MOSFET. This enables entirely new architectures for satellite power and data transmission.

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Figure 2:  eGaN FETs and ICs can withstand ten times more radiation than silicon devices, making them ideal for satellite systems.

 

Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, has set as his mission to reduce the cost of putting objects in space by a factor of 10. With eGaN technology applied to satellites we can reduce the size of the electronics, eliminate the shielding required, and greatly improve the performance of the data communications. This eliminates solar panels, makes the entire system smaller and lighter weight, and extends the life of the satellite.

Reducing the weight by a factor of two is within our reach with today’s technology, whereas a factor of 10 reduction is possible as eGaN technology is used to produce entire systems on a single chip. Multiply the impact of SpaceX with eGaN technology and we will change the way we use space and accelerate the exploration (and possible colonization?) of our universe.

Augmented Reality and Autonomous Vehicles

LiDAR (Light Distancing and Ranging) uses high speed pulsed lasers to rapidly create a three dimensional image or map of a surrounding area. One of the earliest adopters of this technology was the “driverless” car. LiDAR is evolving quickly in both resolution, size, and cost and will soon start appearing in a variety of commercial drones, including the replacement of many existing sensors currently found on conventional vehicles.

2016 predictions_3Figure 3a:  Autonomous cars depend on LiDAR systems powered by eGaN FETs and ICs.

 

meta-augmented-reality-glasses-designboom-01Figure 3b:  Many augmented reality systems use LiDAR to quickly create a digital image or the surroundings.  GaN improves accuracy, speed and greatly reduces power usage.

 

LiDAR is the fastest and lowest-cost way to develop a 3D digital image and thus ideal for new applications such as augmented and merged reality systems. Projects are already underway to include “3D Awareness” in our cell phones. Imagine if phones could understand the space around us. We will be able to get directions in a new, more comprehensive way. An iPhone today can provide the location of the building you desire, but with LiDAR, 3-D mapping could guide you inside the building and straight to a specific office.

Transforming the Use of Electricity

Wires suck! Today, we need wires to supply power to our ever-growing collection of electrically-powered gadgets. For those gadgets that are so completely indispensable, we need to take them with us at all times, and they need batteries that must be recharged all-too-frequently.

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Figure 4: Wireless power will eventually eliminate power cords throughout the home.

 

Wireless power systems using eGaN technology are beginning to unload this wired burden by providing energy wirelessly to power and charge cell phones, tablets, and computers. By integrating thin transmission coils in furniture, the floor tiles and the walls of buildings and homes, the need for wall sockets will be eliminated altogether! This same wireless power technology can be used to charge electric vehicles when parked over a transmitting coil embedded in the floor of a garage, or even drone in mid-air.

There are projects underway to embed wireless chargers at bus stops. Eventually, in a one-minute stop, a bus can get enough charge to drive a mile to the next bus stop. This could eliminate the need for most of the heavy batteries and overhead electrical systems that burden electric buses today.

Transforming Medicine

We are all getting older, and, as we age, we develop more opportunities for frailties and chronic health problems. Today there are major advances in fields such as implantable systems, diagnostic imaging, and prosthetics that are enabled by eGaN technology.

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Figure 5: Diagnostic colonoscopy “pill”.

 

Wireless power is already having an impact on implantable systems such as heart pumps. Beyond just artificial hearts, many other medical systems can also benefit. AsDr. Pramod Bonde of the University of Pittsburg Medical Center speculated, “[wireless power] can be leveraged to simplify sensor systems, to power medical implants and reduce electrical wiring in day-to-day care of the patients.”

But it’s not just eGaN technology in wireless power that is transforming medicine. Imaging technology is also improving by leaps and bounds! The resolution of MRI machines is being enhanced through the development of smaller and more efficient sensing coils using eGaN FETs and ICs. Diagnostic colonoscopies are about to become a thing of the past due to today’s eGaN FETs that are enabling an entire x-ray system to be squeezed into an ingestible and disposable tablet. These types of non-invasive imaging breakthroughs significantly reduce the cost of health care through early warning and non-invasive diagnostics. As we integrate entire systems on a single eGaN chip, miniaturization and image resolution improves the standard of care while medical costs come down.

Wireless Communications

Envelope Tracking is a power supply technique that can double the energy efficiency of RF power amplifiers used to transmit all of our voice and data communications through satellites, base stations, and cell phones. Envelope tracking is accomplished by tracking the power demand precisely and providing the power to exactly fit the amplifier’s signal modulation needs. Today, RF power amplifiers operate at a fixed power level delivering maximum power whether or not the transmitter needs it. Excitingly enough, eGaN transistors were the first transistors capable of tracking power demands at the high data transmission rates used in 4G LTE network base stations!  As we move to 5G formats the need for envelope tracking becomes absolute.

Envelope Tracking graphic (LinkedIn)Figure 6: Without envelope tracking most of the power consumption in the 4G/LTE power amplifier is wasted.

 

 

 

Is it easy to use?

At EPC we designed our GaN transistors (eGaN FETs) to be very similar in behavior to the aging power MOSFETs (except they deliver much, much more performance!), and therefore power systems engineers can use their design experience with minimal additional training. To assist design engineers up the learning curve, EPC has established itself as the leader in educating the industry about gallium nitride devices and their applications. EPC published the industry’s first GaN transistor textbook (in English and Chinese) – GaN Transistors for Efficient Power Conversion. The second edition was published in 2015 by J. Wiley and is available through Amazon as well as textbook retailers. More recently, we have published two application-focused handbooks to further assist power designers of DC-DC conversion and wireless power transfer systems in the use of GaN. EPC is working with more than 60 universitiesaround the world in order to lay the groundwork for the next generation of highly skilled power system designers trained in getting the most out of GaN technology.

BOOKS image APEC_withoutprices (Image)

 

Figure 7:  EPC has written three books covering the use of GaN in state-of-the-art power conversion, wireless poer, and DC-DC conversion

 

 

 

Is it VERY cost effective?

GaN transistors and integrated circuits from EPC are produced using processes similar to silicon power MOSFETs, have many fewer processing steps than MOSFETs, and more devices are produced per manufacturing run because GaN devices are much smaller than their silicon counterparts. In addition, lower voltage (<500 V) GaN transistors do not require the costly packaging needed to protect their silicon predecessors.  This packaging advantage alone can cut the cost of manufacture in half and, combined with high manufacturing yields and small device size, has resulted in the cost of a GaN transistor from EPC to be lower in cost than a comparable (but lower performance) silicon power MOSFET.  Today the designer does not even need to take advantage of the higher performance of GaN to realize cost savings in their system!

Cost effective imageFigure 8:  Comparison of GaN transistor costs and silicon MOSFETs with the same voltage and on-resistance.

 

 

 

Is it reliable?

To date, several manufacturers of GaN transistors have reported excellent results from in-house stress testing.  In December 2015 EPC published its 7th reliability reportincluding 7 million device hours under stress.  In addition, for the first time, EPC published the results from tracking parts in the field for 17 billion hours over a six year period.  GaN FETs, aided by the fact that they are chipscale, and therefore do not suffer  from failure modes common to packaged semiconductors, achieved a remarkable 0.24 failures for every billion device hours.  There is no doubt that eGaN FETs are suitable for any application in which MOSFETs are used.

 

EPC Chip-Scale Package eGaN FET Reliability

Figure 9:  eGaN FET reliability after 6 years and 17 billion hours in the field is proving better than the aging MOSFET.

 

 

 

Summary

Thus, the four requisite attributes for GaN to displace the silicon MOSFET have been achieved: switching speed, small size, competitive cost, and high reliability give the GaN transistor the “winning edge” to displace the silicon MOSFET in power conversion applications.  Similar analysis shows that soon the same will be true for power ICs and analog integrated circuits created with GaN technology.  Perhaps in 3-5 years the same will be true for digital integrated circuits.  GaN is a relatively new technology and has just begun its journey up the learning curve!

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Reflections on a Trade Show, and a Turning Point for Silicon

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In March 2016 over 5,000 people converged on the Applied Power Electronics Conference (APEC) in Long Beach California to understand the state-of-the-art and the future of the electronics that powers things such as servers, electric cars, white goods, factories, medical implants, as well as drones.

The conference, which is the premier event in applied power electronics, had technical papers as well as a conference hall full of exhibits related to power electronics.

I have been to every APEC show since inception in 1986. This one was different.
Alex_Ashok_APEC_2016

 

On Display at the Conference

For 60 years, well before the APEC conference was conceived, all electronic trade shows have demonstrated the latest and greatest advances in silicon devices as well as the systems and products that are built upon this excellent semiconductor. At APEC 2016 there was a ground swell of products, papers, demonstrations, and an obvious general enthusiasm for devices based on a relatively new semiconductor – gallium nitride (GaN). GaN devices were exhibited by Panasonic, Infineon, Texas Instruments, GaN Systems, Transphorm, and Efficient Power Conversion (EPC). There were drones from Solace Power that can be recharged in mid-air, drones with LiDAR systems mapping the conference hall in real time, a dozen wireless charging systems from companies such as Semtech, Neosen, Gill Electronics,WiTricity, and Solace Power. A satellite from Planetary Resources landed at the EPC booth – satellite designers love GaN transistors and integrated circuits because they are tiny, efficient, and very resistant to the radiation that can damage silicon devices in space.

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Figure 1: Phoenix Aerial Systems had a drone on display that had a working LiDAR system mapping the conference room in real time.  LiDAR systems use GaN transistors because they are more than 10 times faster than silicon, thus giving greater image resolution.

 

GaN transforming medicine

Figure 2: GaN devices are extremely small and are used in many medical devices such as implantable pain scintillators, implantable heart pumps, and prosthetics.

 

 

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Figure 3: Gill Electronics had this automotive center console on display.  Embedded in the console is an AirFuel wireless charging system that can charge multiple devices placed in the recessed section on top.

 

Planetary Resources

Figure 4: Planetary Resources had a model of their Arkyd 200 satellite that is designed to recover valuable minerals from near-earth asteroids. In addition to being very resistant to radiation, GaN devices are used to reduce size and weight as well as to improve the efficiency of the solar panels.

 

More Stuff at the Conference

There was the Little Box Challenge winner at the GaN Systems booth (The winners, a company in Belgium named CE+T took home a $1,000,000 prize from Google).  Panasonic showed a GaN-based, very tiny 45 W AC adapter.   Texas Instruments had a DC-DC converter that converter 48 V to 1 V with astonishing efficiency thanks to GaN (This is the single-stage, energy saving power conversion solution the server industry has been demanding for years!).

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Figure 5: Semtech’s chip set, as well as EPC’s GaN FETs, was used in Neosen’s tri-mode wireless charger.  This device can charge devices using any of the three popular standards, Qi, PMA, or AirFuel.

 

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Figure 6: WiTricity displayed their notebook computer charging pad that uses EPC’s GaN FETs.  Soon entire desktops will be wireless charging platforms.

 

Envelope tracking systems for efficient 4G/LTE and 5G wireless base stations were present, as were X-ray machines that fit into an ingestible pill (Think colonoscopy) were on display thanks to the miniaturization possible with GaN technology.

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Figure 7: Check Cap has developed an X-ray machine that fits into an ingestible pill.  This incredible device can do a colonoscopy without pre-purging or an invasive medical procedure.  As the pill passes through the patient’s system, a 3-D image of the patient’s colon is sent to a wireless receiver worn as a patch during the test.  Approval in Europe is expected this year.

 

Technical Papers and Discussions

GaN was not only in evidence on the conference room floor, it was also in many of the technical papers. There were 106 technical papers and presentations that referenced GaN in one way or another.  GaN was the talk of the show by far.

EPC has been touting GaN for 6 years since its start of production in early 2010.  At that time GaN FETs are 5-10 times higher performance that the best silicon transistors.  At that time EPC made the claim that by 2015 GaN would not only continue to be higher and higher performance, it would also be less expensive to produce than silicon devices that can handle the same amount of power.  That timetable was met, so this year at APEC power systems designers were confronted with the first time that a new material could outperform silicon at a lower unit cost, and is available off the shelf.  Also, after 6 years in production, EPC has shown excellent field reliability that is as good as silicon reliability performance. These two facts contributed significantly to a change in mood of the power design engineers compared with past years!

Moore’s Law – Passing the Baton to Achieve the Promise

GaN is the logical successor to silicon for power conversion and analog devices; and possibly for digital components as well.  GaN is opening new markets – as shown by the multitude of products on display at APEC .  GaN technology enables applications such as wireless charging, higher resolution MRI imaging, micro satellites, high resolution and low cost LiDAR, and higher bandwidth wireless communications.

The recent sluggishness of the end markets for semiconductors is somewhat a by-product of the end of Moore’s Law, silicon cannot keep pace with the need to double performance while lowering cost.  But don’t fret, GaN is on track to re-establish that amazing “go-go period” when consumers could count on marvelous new products and applications that year after year delivered higher performance and a constantly reducing price.

Moore’s Law is not dead, it has a new beginning with a new technology, GaN, to take up the baton.

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