Silicon Carbide, Gallium Nitride Chips Power Up as Electric Vehicles Boom

Silicon Carbide, Gallium Nitride Chips Power Up as Electric Vehicles Boom
Silicon carbide (SiC) and gallium nitride (GaN) power semiconductors are projected to hit record growth levels, spurred on by the latest applications for power ICs, particularly those in battery electric vehicles (BEV), such as traction inverter and on-board applications, as well as for consumer electronics battery chargers, datacenter apps, and energy infrastructure applications.

After the pandemic downturn, power IC makers are investing heavily in new plant and manufacturing technologies for both SiC and GaN production. Semiconductor analysts had expected the SiC and GaN power IC market to pass the $1 billion in 2021, according to a 2020 Omdia research report, but the wave of current investment is likely to drive growth in the wide band gap (WBG) SiC and GaN semiconductor markets even higher. SiC-based design wins have multiplied for electric vehicle applications and will drive the SiC market beyond $2.5 billion by 2025, noted Lyon, France-based Yole Développement in its November 2020 report. For power GaN devices, Yole’s Power GaN 2022 report, released in June, forecast the power GaN market to be worth US$2 billion in 2027, with consumer devices, including power supplies and Class D audio amplifiers, representing 48% of the total GaN market in 2027.

“GaN fast chargers are growing rapidly in the handset market. Since 2020, Yole has seen an increasing number of fast chargers featuring GaN devices from players such as Power Integrations, Navitas, and GaN Systems,” said Taha Ayari, technology and market analyst, Compound Semiconductors at Yole: “Now Innoscience is also contributing to this market with high volumes.”

Manufacturers are bumping up their investments in SiC and GaN to meet expected demand. In September, Wolfspeed announced a new multi-billion silicon carbide materials facility in Chatham County, North Carolina, to build primarily 200mm SiC wafers, which are 1.7x larger than the 150mm wafers, translating to more chips per wafer and lower device costs. The investment eventually will generate a 10-fold increase in Wolfspeed’s currently SiC production capacity at its Durham, North Carolina headquarters campus. The new wafers will be used to supply the company’s Mohawk Valley Fab in Marcy, NY, which opened earlier this year and is what the company called the largest and only fully automated 200mm SiC fabrication facility.

In August, Navitas Semiconductor, the El Segundo, Calif.-based maker of GaN power ICs, acquired GeneSiC Semiconductor, a pioneer in SiC design and processes, for approximately $100 million. The deal positions Navitas, maker of the GaNFAST line of power ICs, as a pure-play, next-generation power IC manufacturer with both GaN and SiC lines for fast-charging in EVs and data centers.

Choosing SiC or GaN?
The advantages of WBG compound semiconductors like SiC and GaN over standard silicon are numerous, although costs for these new devices initially will be higher, analysts say. For lower-voltage applications, like chargers and consumer devices, GaN will be the choice for 650 V and under, while higher-voltage requirements like electric vehicles often dictate using SiC devices capable of handling 800 V and above.

“With respect to the EV market, a key trend is the transition from 400 V to 800 V batteries, which enable higher efficiency (longer range or reduced battery size for same range), faster charging, and overall cost reductions,” noted Victor Veliadis, executive director and chief technical officer for PowerAmerica, in Raleigh, N.C. “This transition makes the SiC proposition stronger with respect to Si and GaN. 1200 V SiC MOSFETs have been commercially available since 2011 and have gone through several generations of optimization from many suppliers. A 2 level inverter topology can be implemented with 1200 SiC transistors to address 800 V EVs.”

Examples of these higher-voltage EVs include the Porsche Taycan, Audi Q6 e-tron, Hyundai Ioniq 5, and Lucid Air, with 800 V or higher voltages offering longer range/higher efficiency and faster charging.

Commercially available GaN is primarily at 600 V, with one company, Transphorm, offering a 900 V product, Veliadis noted. “An 800 V battery GaN-based inverter is implemented with a 3 level topology that requires double the number of devices vs. 2 level. 2L (SiC) uses fewer devices than 3L (GaN) and has lower control complexity. On the other hand, 2L suffers higher output voltage harmonic distortion. So GaN is competing with SiC for 800 V battery EVs and several projects are looking at 2L (SiC) vs 3L (GaN) advantages/disadvantages and overall bill of materials costs.”

Automotive the Killer App for EVs
For now, SiC is seen by far as the better alternative power IC over GaN chips for high-power, high-voltage automotive applications. “SiC, being more mature than GaN, and better suited for the high voltage and high powers of EV inverters, will continue to make design wins in the mainstream 400 V battery and the emerging 800 V battery EVs,” Veliadis noted. “GaN will continue to compete at 400 V successfully, and build a proposition for 800 V EVs. The onboard charger requires lower power levels compared to the traction inverter, and so GaN is a very competitive solution for that application.”

For traction inverters, the adoption of 800 V batteries is expected to accelerate, said Jonathan Liao, senior product line manager, VE-Trac, for Phoenix, Ariz.-based power IC maker onsemi. Besides Lucid, Porsche, Audi, HKMC, additional manufacturers such as BYD, BJEV, BMW, are expected to transition from 400 V to 800 V batteries in the next two to three years, Liao added.

SiC is expected to grow at a 39% CAGR between 2022-2029, said Liao, adding that Onsemi believes the growth rate will further accelerate, especially in traction inverter applications. “Many traditional OEMs and disruptors alike are trying to catch up in technology to the EV market leader Tesla, which uses SiC in most of their traction solutions to gain efficiency, higher performance, and better reliability. EVs with SiC traction solutions offer longer range, faster acceleration, and improved lifetime.”

For 2023 and beyond, George Liang, director, Product and System Application Engineering at Infineon, said he expects semiconductor companies to bolster capital investment in SiC manufacturing capacity due to increasing demand for the devices for EV power train, charging and energy storage. “Learning from the supply chain constraint issue in 2022, electric vehicle makers will push harder to semiconductor companies on the second source and application design compatibility requirement for SiC devices,” he said. “This will drive the standardization of SiC packages.”

Liang added that semiconductor companies will speed development of new SiC and GaN devices with lower Rds,on and better package technology for thermal conductivity due to increasing power and density requirement for inverter and charger applications fast charging. “Moving from 6-inch to 8-inch wafer diameters will become necessary to increase capacity and lower manufacturing cost for SiC WBG devices,” Liang said.

Infineon and Stellantis in November announced a non-binding multi-year deal for the chipmaker to supply Stellantis with its SiC chips for EVs, with Infineon reserving manufacturing capacity and supply of its CoolSiC “bare die” chips in the second half of the decade to direct Tier 1 suppliers of Stellantis. In 2024, Infineon’s new SiC fab will open in Kulim, Malaysia, complementing existing manufacturing capacities in Villach, Austria.

Silicon carbide is well-established in the EV market today, noted Henning Hauenstein, VP of Strategy at NXP, and while it’s more expensive than traditional silicon, it offers efficiency improvements that make the tradeoffs worthwhile. “For example, it might enable an OEM to use a smaller EV battery or deliver a longer-range vehicle,” Hauenstein said. “These system-level benefits mean that we expect to see continued adoption of SiC in 2023, with manufacturers working to build capacity to meet that need.” Outside of the automotive market, he said “SiC’s high-voltage capabilities make it well-suited to energy transformation, power grid, or heavy-industry applications.”
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