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GaN: Small, Powerful And Market-ready

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After trials, tests and much talk, GaN is set to charge into mainstream markets, reports Rebecca Pool.

From industry analysts to Physics Nobel Laureates, myriad compound semiconductor players are asserting that GaN is the material to watch right now.

Late last year, Ana Villamor, from Yole Developpement, highlighted how data centres are now adopting GaN products including DC/DC converters with point of load supplies at a 'phenomenal speed'.

Meanwhile, talking at the University of Hyderabad, India, in January, Hiroshi Amano asserted the material will soon be playing a big role in IoT and 5G communications applications.

For UK-based Dialog Semiconductor, the latest raft of proclamations confirms what company presidents have highlighted in recent months: mainstream market adoption is nigh.

In late 2016, as the company was sampling GaN power ICs in fast charging power adapters, senior vice president of development and strategy, Mark Tyndall, told Compound Semiconductor: "When TSMC started to offer GaN as a standard process on six inch wafers, we saw that as a signal that the time was right to enter the market."

Since this time, the company has been collaborating with TSMC to bring its high voltage GaN power IC plus controller to market. The power management IC, with Dialog's digital 'Rapid Charge' power conversion controller, is designed to deliver more efficient, smaller and higher power density power supplies compared to today's silicon FETs.

Indeed, the company claims the latest product enables nearly halves the power loss and size of power supplies, factors that are so very important to the consumer adapter that the mobile communications industry craves for its smartphones, notebooks and more. And right now, pre-production of Dialog's device is underway with product launches coming very soon.

Dialog's Tomas Moreno believes 2018 will be a turning point for GaN.

"We expect to launch our first GaN power IC this quarter and then our second power IC for consumer power adapters in the middle of this year," says Tomas Moreno, director of corporate development at Dialog Semiconductor.

Crucially, Moreno reckons this year will be the turning point for GaN, with the consumer adapter sector being the company's first target market.

"GaN addresses a more than $5 billion market encompassing PCs, TVs, gaming, data centre, automotive, clean energy, industrial and other segments," he says. "We are focused on the consumer space first as it is large with very short design cycles so we can get to scale quickly and send many wafers through our lines."

"This will really drive down costs... which will in turn mature the technology so the market will continue to adopt GaN," he adds. "Our goal is to use the consumer power adapter market as a launchpad for other applications."

Seeing the signs

Moreno reckons overall market adoption is starting to happen, having noted many design-ins, based on GaN devices, in data centres, industrial, and even automotive applications. "We are seeing all this momentum already," he says.

What's more, he believes market trends, including the shift to USB Type C connectivity and USB Power Delivery as well as increasing dependence on rapid charge batteries, are set to kick-start GaN's entry into the consumer power adapter market.

"We have this window of opportunity where the adapter for your smartphone and the adapter for your PC will be one," he highlights. "And with GaN we can make this universal adapter very very small."

And while industry players such as Navitas Semiconductor and Innergie, both of the US, have delivered GaN-based 65W adapters, Moreno reckons Dialog can deliver a system with a lower bill-of-materials.

"Some companies have [delivered] the technology but with topologies that use expensive components," he says. "We are creating a chip that will allow you to get the bill-of-materials costs down and can be implemented more rapidly."

But what about customer concerns over reliability? Moreno thinks these issues are being addressed highlighting how devices from Dialog and competitors have passed stringent reliability test requirements. In addition, he believes supply chain bottlenecks, namely around epitaxial layer deposition and packaging, are being addressed.

Dialog's manufacturing partners are expected to have the necessary MOCVD reactors, and as he adds: "Consumer applications tend to be lower power and use QFN packaging; there is no bottleneck for this type of packaging."

"Dialog is a strong incumbent in the consumer application space and we are very familiar with this market," he says. "We can bring this technology here with a better performance and a competitive bill of materials."

"Very soon you will have a nice little power supply in your hand that you can carry anywhere," he adds.


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