medtech Tag Archive
Gallium Nitride maker EPC takes a big step forward in its quest to kill silicon chips
My Predictions for 2017
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.
Faster, Smarter, Better: The Next Chip Revolution
Four Industries that will be Transformed by GaN
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.
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. 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.
LiDAR 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.
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.
We 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.
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!