The Next Era in Power Electronics

Oct. 25, 2014
Power electronics is getting ready for its next big change, and Gallium Nitride (GaN) transistors appear poised to take that top seat and disrupt the $15B power transistor market.

It’s estimated that 10 percent of all the power generated around the world is lost as heat through inefficient power conversion – that is when electric energy is converted from one form to another, such as between AC (alternating current) and DC (direct current), changing the voltage or frequency, or some combination of these. To put this in perspective, the scale of this loss is more than double the world’s total installed capacity for non-hydro renewable electricity generation.

Today, the vast majority of power conversion is accomplished using silicon switches. These devices are used virtually everywhere power is consumed and expanding rapidly with the electrification, computerization, and connectivity of all the devices in our daily lives – from smartphones and TVs to Electric Vehicles (EVs) and data centers.

Everyone’s familiar with Moore’s law, which correctly predicted that computer microprocessor performance would increase at a steady exponential rate, doubling approximately every two years. Not so for power conversion.

Power electronics have typically followed a step change function with new materials platforms and topologies yielding major improvements in performance only every 10-15 years or so. International Rectifier achieved market dominance with the MOSFET transistor in the 1990s, followed by Infineon who claimed the dominate position with the Super Junction MOSFETs in the 2000s. As the performance of those technology platforms is topping out, the market now stands poised for the next big shakeup.

Gallium Nitride (GaN) based transistors appear to be increasingly positioned to take that top seat and disrupt the $15B power transistor market. GaN is a very hard, mechanically stable, wide bandgap semiconductor material with high heat capacity and thermal conductivity. The GaN materials platform has been increasingly commoditized through its application into RF antennas and LEDs, and a handful of companies are now coming out with power devices.

Why does this matter? GaN has the potential to eliminate 50 percent to 90 percent of the losses in power conversion. Moreover it can reduce the size and weight of power modules by up to 75 percent, significantly reducing system BOM costs while dramatically improving performance. GaN switches operate 1000x faster than silicon switches; they have 10x better resistance per area; and 40x better overall performance.

In energy hungry applications such as data centers, this step change in performance is long overdue. In order to keep up with the pace of processor innovation and the explosion of cloud computing demands, data center designers now need to put 1.5x the power conversion in the same space, and have run out of options to accomplish this. Similarly, major automotive manufacturers are challenging their designers to half the size of their onboard vehicle chargers and dramatically increase power electronics efficiency to meet their cost, range, and performance roadmaps. This same size and efficiency demand is consistent across industries and GaN is seen as the only cost effective solution capable of meeting these rising performance demands.

One of the clear leaders in realizing this potential is Chrysalix portfolio company GaN Systems. GaN Systems product portfolio, launched earlier this year, addresses roughly $10B of the total $15B market for power transistors. About $5B of that market, in industrial and transportation applications above 50A (such as motor drivers, industrial power supplies, EV charging systems, and centralized solar inverters), appears to be uniquely addressable by GaN Systems proprietary high current technology.

Since launching its products this spring, GaN Systems has begun sampling programs with more than 50 customers across the electronics, manufacturing,  EV, renewables, and Internet services industries, representing $2B in product applications, or roughly 20 percent of the serviceable addressable market.

These customers are evaluating GaN Systems for a wide range of applications, from more efficient data centers and solar inverters, to thinner TVs, smaller more powerful motors, longer range EVs, and a multitude of other consumer, enterprise, industrial and transportation applications. Anywhere efficiency, size, weight, cost, and performance are important, GaN has a compelling value proposition.

Mike Sherman is managing partner, Chrysalix EVC

About the Author

Kevin Normandeau | Publisher

Kevin is a veteran of the publishing industry having worked for brands like PC World, AOL, Network World, Data Center Knowledge and other business to business sites. He focuses on industry trends in the energy efficiency industry.