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New-generation power semiconductors… – Information Centre – Research & Innovation

An EU, industry, national and regional-funded research project has developed the next generation of energy-efficient power semiconductors, using gallium nitride devices on innovative substrates. They can switch more quickly at high voltages and current densities and will power the smaller and cheaper energy-efficient applications of tomorrow.

To strengthen Europe’s position in power semiconductors and industrial electronics, European-based companies need access to the latest innovative technologies to prototype and manufacture devices for more efficient and more compact applications. In particular, as electronic devices are set to become smaller, there is a need for novel power semiconductors based on new materials and designs.

Gallium nitride (GaN) is one of the most promising candidates for new semiconductor materials. It has a wider band gap than the predominant semiconductor material silicon, which means it can enable higher voltages (e.g. 600 volts) with low resistance.

These characteristics are the basis for energy conversion with lower losses. Thus, new GaN devices have great potential to meet future industry demands.

The EU, industry, national and regional-funded PowerBase project developed the next generation of energy-efficient gallium nitride semiconductors. These are capable of operating at the high voltages and current densities needed to deliver cutting-edge compact power applications.

‘The main project achievement was creating the first generation of gallium nitride power semiconductors of industrial quality out of Europe,’ says project coordinator Herbert Pairitsch of Infineon Technologies Austria AG. ‘They enable smaller and more efficient applications for power conversion.’

As a direct result and only six months after the project ended, the first European-produced power products – gallium nitride semiconductors – were launched in the global marketplace, under the trademark CoolGaN™.

Pilot lines and pioneers

Besides other achievements, the POWERBASE consortium set up pilot lines for the novel power semiconductors by enhancing an existing silicon fabrication line and packaging lines. The process for producing advanced GaN power devices is being prepared for an upcoming high volume. It is fully integrated and compatible with high-volume silicon CMOS (complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor) manufacturing facilities.

‘The market for GaN is still very small, so we need co-production with silicon technology, with only a small volume of dedicated equipment. It was a big task to prove that no cross-contaminations can occur,’ Pairitsch explains.

The project consortium conducted research and development along the entire value chain, including substrates, devices, packaging and ‘smart energy’ demonstrator applications. Basic research generated new knowledge on gallium nitride materials, particularly concerning their reliability in semiconductors for high-voltage applications.

This research has provided for greater utilisation of the new materials and technologies and is promoting their market acceptance. The new-generation, wide-band-gap semiconductors open up new possibilities for compact power applications because they go beyond the performance limits of silicon-based semiconductors.

The early availability of enhanced power devices made in the EU will be vital for maintaining the competitiveness of European industries, including in the fields of communications, electric vehicles, lighting, and photovoltaics for solar energy.

Compact power supplies

POWERBASE has improved the ability within European industry to provide more efficient and more compact applications for energy generation and energy transformation. ‘For example, the adaptor for a laptop can now be put in the plug,’ says Pairitsch. ‘This gets rid of the bulky AC cable and adaptor leading to your slim laptop.’

The project’s research showed that in energy conversion chains, the conversion can be improved considerably compared to the best silicon options. ‘POWERBASE laid the foundation for energy conversion with lower power losses,’ he adds.

High-performance energy conversion is needed for telecommunication servers, for instance, where devices must be up-and-running round the clock. The first gallium nitride product used in a telecommunication server was a CoolGaN™ product that can provide a smaller modular power supply with 2 % higher efficiency, representing a 40 % reduction in loss.

POWERBASE received funding from the Electronic Component Systems for European Leadership Joint Undertaking (ECSEL JU) which, in turn, was supported by Horizon 2020 and nine ECSEL Participating States.

The project represented a close partnership between research and industry with the overall goal of strengthening Europe´s power semiconductor industry. A follow-up project, UltimateGaN is further developing the potential of the novel GaN semiconductors.