GaN transistors to replace silicon in 'extreme' devices

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GaN transistors to replace silicon in 'extreme' devices

A chemical compound known as gallium nitrade (GaN) could replace silicon for high-power and high-temperature electronics.

According to electronics engineer and physicist Weixiao Huang, transistors built with GaN could be used in motor drives, hybrid vehicles, house appliances, and defence equipment.

“Silicon has been the workhorse in the semiconductor industry for the last two decades,” said Huang, who this month graduated with doctorate qualifications from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

“But as power electronics get more sophisticated and require higher performing transistors, engineers have been seeking an alternative like gallium nitride-based transistors that can perform better than silicon and in extreme conditions,” he said.

Huang has developed a transistor that exploits material properties of GaN to reduce power consumption and improve efficiency of current silicon-based electronics.

GaN has a semiconductor bandgap three times that of silicon, and an electric field ten times that of silicon, which reduces power loss, improves efficiency, and enables operation under extreme conditions.

Hence, the material is well-suited for use in metal/oxide semiconductor field-effect (MOSFET) transistors, which operate within electronic devices to convert electric energy to other forms as required.

The transistor is said to have achieved world-record performance in laboratory tests, as well as being able to integrate several electronic functions onto one chip, hence simplifying electronic systems.

“It [GaN] simplifies and reduces the volume and weight of the electronic systems, improves the system efficiency and allows electronic system to operate under extreme conditions,” Huang told iTnews.

“Because it is so resilient, the device could open up the field of electronic engineering in ways that were not previously possible due to the limitations imposed by less tolerant silicon transistors.”

“The GaN chip can also integrate optoelectronic devices, sensors, power devices and control circuits to make the electronic system more sophisticated and smarter,” he said.

“If these new GaN transistors replaced many existing silicon MOSFETs in power electronics systems, there would be global reduction in fossil fuel consumption and pollution.”

Although it is anticipated to enter the semiconductor industry in no less than three years time, the technology already has received interest from the automobile and electronics industries.

While Huang did not disclose the names of the companies, he said they were some of the largest automobile and electronics companies from the U.S. and Japan.

“These companies can help strengthen the research efforts in this area and commercialise GaN transistors to realise its full material advantages,” he said, noting that research into the transistors is still in its early stages.

“Material quality, size, price and device long-term reliability need to be further investigated for any successful commercialisation.”

“At least 3 years will be needed to see any commercial GaN transistors in the semiconductor market,” he said.
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