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Next Generation Power Solutions: GaN Power Charging Devices in Electronics

Jan 06, 2021 | Technology | Future Market Insights

Power electronics has a key role to play in electric power conversion for applications in energy & utilities, transportation, and renewable energy applications. According to the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, by 2020, 80% of all electrical power generated will be passed through electronic converter during processes of generation, distribution, transmission, and consumption.

With around four decades of development, conventional silicon-based devices are largely considered to have reached their potential for improvements in application. Consequently, materials such as gallium nitride and silicon carbide are generating opportunities for products capable of operating in harsh environments, higher voltage, powers, and frequency.

However, in terms of silicon carbide, issues in terms of higher costs from a shortage of high-quality raw materials and complexity of product structures are expected to hold back adoption, in comparison to gallium nitride.

Further, GaN can be produced at a lower cost, while transmitting electrons at 1000 times that of silicon alternatives. As a result, GaN is projected to gain key roles in electrical and electronic applications, with developments in wireless charging especially in the consumer electronics and automotive sectors.

The Growing Importance of GaN Technology Chargers

Digital devices have gone through substantial changes in recent years. As consumer and industrial electronics manufacturers focus on improvements to displays, size, user experience and design, battery life has remained a challenge. The consequent increase in battery volumes has resulted in a need for faster charging capabilities. In the past decade, high-power fast charging protocols have become key for digital devices.

Some of the more commonplace fast charging protocols in the digital devices sector include OPPO’s VOOC, Qualcomm’s QC (Quick Charge), HUAWEI FCP (FastCharge), SCP (SuperCharge), and PD (Power Delivery).

However, each of these have displayed issues in terms of high component density resulting in larger device sizes for higher charging power. GaN technology has made small, high-power offerings possible. GaN is capable of handling substantially greater levels of voltage and heat in comparison to silicon. GaN chargers also require fewer components

The launch of the Xiaomi 11 smartphone in December 2020, the attention of the industry has been growing on the decision by the company to provide a 55W GaN charger for its flagship product instead of a conventional silicon-charger. 

Further, Apple, Oppo, Huawei, and Samsung are some of the key tech companies with plans to adopt GaN-based power adapters for their product offerings with USB-C interfaces up to 65W fast charging solutions.

It is important to note that first-gen GaN-based chargers with partial GaN components. In the long term, manufacturers are expected to have the entire circuitry replaced with high-quality GaN parts to further improve on efficiency and reduce the size of charger offerings.

Potential Applications in Automotive Sector

Electric drive for automobiles is becoming increasingly common. However, to replace conventional gas and diesel vehicles, the industry requires higher levels of flexibility in terms of charging options. In current EV offerings, users are largely dependent on on-board charger technology. Consequently, chargers have to be small, cost efficient, and light-weight.

Manufacturers have displayed interest in integrating multiple charger components into single semiconductor chips. A project by Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Solid State Physics has created 600 V power transistors, comprising gate drivers in GaN IC and freewheeling diodes, a breakthrough in terms of integration density for power electronics systems.

GaN power devices are also finding growing roles in boosting the power density of battery chargers for newer models in plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. GaN charging systems allow for a seamless transition in power flow between input and output functions. Virgnia Tech has come up with a 500 kHz, 1.8 KW charger prototype, with an efficiency level of over 90%. The use of multi-chip-modules for the integration of multiple GaN transistors allow for faster switching speeds.

On a similar note, Finepower has developed a 3 kW GaN charging system for electric vehicles, on the basis of high electron mobility transistors, in line with a water-cooled system. With the rapidly growing adoption of EVs around the world, these developments are expected to create key growth opportunities for GaN power device developers in the long term.

Future Prospects of Power Electronics

The covid-19 pandemic had a disruptive impact on supply chains for wide-band gap materials owing to lockdown restrictions and a slump from end user industries. However, recovery has been steady in the second half of 2020 as semiconductor wafer manufacturers plan for the long term in the industry.

Significant impact of the covid-19 pandemic on the GaN industry has been from the suspension of operations from automotive OEMs around the world. Restrictions on international trade have limited short-term market growth. Further, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), automotive power semiconductor applications have dropped by around US$ 50 million in 2020 as compared to 2019.

With a number of end user OEMs in China and Europe resuming operations in the latter half of 2020, recovery of the GaN sector is likely to gain traction towards 2021. However, issues are likely to continue in 2021, in terms of reduced workforce and component shortages in the months ahead. Manufacturers are likely to push for improvements in supply chains and cash flow through strategies aimed towards local end users in addition to research on new end-use segments.

As per the IEEE, consumer electronics applications will account for most GaN semiconductor devices. The uptick in the manufacture of consumer electronics towards the end of 2020, particularly smartphones will aid stronger growth in the near future. The demand for wide bandgap semiconductors is expected to rise at a double-digit rate post the pandemic in the coming decade which in turn is likely to have a favorable impact on the GaN power devices and chargers sector for the foreseeable future.