Gallium nitride (GaN) semiconductors were a prominent highlight at the CES 2023 floor alongside electric vehicles (EVs) and other products built for energy efficiency and environmental conservation. And GaN Systems’ booth was a good venue to gauge specific trends shaping this wide bandgap (WBG) technology’s design footprint in 2023 and beyond.
At the company’s booth, GAN Systems CEO Jim Witham, while showing the latest offerings, also talked about the design progress of GaN technology and applications. He said that 2021 was when the OEMs started looking at GaN chargers for mobile handsets and notebook computers.
Regarding what’s new and latest for GaN devices, Witham mentioned power supplies for data center servers. At the show, the company showcased xFusion 3 kW PSU, the world’s first 100 W/in3 with 80 plus Titanium efficiency solution (Figure 1).
Figure 1 The 3kW power supply for data center servers has a 96% efficiency rating under the 80 Plus certification scheme. Source: GaN Systems
In automotive, another sweet spot, the Ottawa-based firm displayed the GaN-powered 7.2 kW onboard charger (OBC) and DC-DC converters for EV designs. Witham also showed GaN-powered Wi-Fi speakers from Daniel Hertz that deliver pure analog sound from digital content like streaming. Then there were 1,000 W Class D audio amplifiers that GaN Systems has developed in partnership with Axign. The design merged the company’s GaN power semiconductors with Axign’s audio amplifier controller.
GaN’s design progress
When asked about the future directions for GaN semiconductor design, Witham mentioned two things. First, in a power subsystem, how design engineers put all the devices together and co-package them. “You make things small, have tight gate loops, and ensure a good heat transfer.”
Second, GaN technology is 30 times away from its theoretical performance limit, so there is much room to develop a better GaN chip. Here, according to Witham, instead of using the raw power of GaN, design engineers must focus on intelligent topology, layout, and heat transfer to get more out of transistors.
Figure 2 The trick is to use the right topologies that get the best value out of GaN transistors. Source: Reuters
“We have big efforts in both of these areas to develop better power subsystems and produce better GaN chips,” Witham said. Regarding thermal management for GaN devices, he said that thermal has always been important because if you can get the heat out of the device, you end up spending less on the system. “We continue to do those things, but what’s more critical is to use GaN transistors optimally.”
GaN Systems history
Girvan Patterson and John Roberts co-founded GaN Systems in 2006. It’s headquartered in Ottawa, which is not really a power semiconductor hotbed. When asked why Ottawa, Witham called it a cocktail of three ingredients. One, the optical semiconductor boom happened over there involving companies like Nortel.
Two, there was a lot of entrepreneurial spirit and venture capital money. “The company founders saw GaN as an opportunity and growth in the power industry, especially in data centers, industrial motors and chargers,” Witham said. “Though I don’t think anybody saw the big growth in EVs then.”
Three, Ottawa, the capital, had a research facility, National Research Council (NRC), which gave the upstart a small GaN fab to acquire fast learning cycles. “That’s why we were able to come up with working GaN transistors fast enough,” Witham added.
Figure 3 Two Ottawa-based serial entrepreneurs founded GaN Systems in 2006. Source: GaN Systems
In 2013, TSMC was giving the final touches to its GaN manufacturing process. And whenever TSMC has a process ready to go to production, it does a beauty contest while going around the world and interviewing companies. Subsequently, it chooses one company to partner with and execute the first design.
TSMC chose GaN Systems, and once the company perfected the secret sauce in Ottawa, it transferred its GaN semiconductor designs for mass production to Taiwan. Fast forward to 2023, GaN Systems claims to be the only GaN semiconductors company with a production program for automotive. At the show, for EV designs, it displayed an OBC from Canoo and a DC-DC converter from Vitesco.