If the mark of critical technology is that companies are willing to sue to protect it, and governments are blocking other countries from buying it, then gallium nitride is only growing more important. It is already pushing silicon out of applications in power and radio electronics.
In December, a federal court ordered that Infineon stop making gallium nitride chips that could infringe on patents owned by Macom Technology Solutions, which sued the German chipmaker in April. John Croteau, Macom’s chief executive, said that Infineon’s attempt to alter its patent licensing deal confirmed that gallium nitride is “at the tipping point for market adoption, threatening large incumbents like Infineon.”
Last year, the United States government blocked Aixtron, a German maker of semiconductor tools from selling itself to a Chinese chip supplier. The reason was likely that Aixtron’s tools are critical for making light-emitting diodes based on a gallium nitride, which has vital military applications. An American regulatory panel also blocked the sale of a Philips subsidiary with similar manufacturing insight.
These quarrels over gallium nitride are not insignificant. The material is critical for military applications, like sophisticated radar for antiballistic missiles and an Air Force radar system called Space Fence for tracking space debris. And regulators fear that handing the secrets of the technology to foreign companies could threaten U.S. national security.
But the market for the technology is also growing. From around $870 million in 2014, it is expected to reach $3.4 billion in 2024, according to a recent report from Transparency Market Research. The market will grow 17 percent per year over the next eight years, the report said.
The largest suppliers of gallium nitride, including Efficient Power Conversion and GaN Systems, are focusing on power electronics and light-emitting diodes, according to the report. But their growth mirrors what is happening with gallium nitride in radio frequency applications. Some of the biggest competitiors in the wireless industry include NXP Semiconductors, Macom, and Qorvo, as well as defense contractors like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin.
Gallium nitride, also known as GaN, stands out from materials like silicon for having a wide bandgap, which allows it to handle higher voltages and hotter temperatures. With limited power consumption, it outperforms other materials in radio frequency applications, including gallium arsenide and silicon structures known as LDMOS.
These benefits have not come easy, though. Troubles with packaging and producing gallium nitride have slowed an ascent that industry analysts once thought would quickly remove silicon from the high-power equation. But recent advances in plastic packaging and larger wafers have kept the market at a slow burn.
For years, the defense sector was the major force in the market for gallium nitride, which was used in electronic warfare, radar, communications, and jammers for improvised explosive devices. But that is set to change with new radio equipment for 5G communications, according to Transparency Market Research. The equipment will require power amplifiers based on gallium nitride that run more efficiently at high voltages than gallium arsenide, generating more power to transmit signals.
New applications are pending in healthcare and home appliances, too, according to industry executives. Mark Murphy, senior director of marketing at Macom, recently told Microwaves & RF that gallium nitride could be used to generate heat for pain-relief procedures like ablation. Power amplifiers based on the technology could also be used for cooking food more efficiently than microwave ovens.
Many companies are not stopping at power amplifiers, though. Charles Trantanella, a chief scientist at Custom MMIC, used the material to create mixers that modulate and convert radio signals with high linearity. Akoustis, a start-up firm, is using gallium nitride in filters that block out stray signals that leak into smartphone or radio equipment.
The future is bright for the wireless applications of gallium nitride, though the material will still make a larger impact in power electronics. After enduring growing pains, the market for radio frequency GaN is expected to reach $688.5 million in 2020, up from around $300 million in 2015, according to technology research firm Strategy Analytics.
There are signs that chipmakers are preparing to carve out part of the market. Last year, Infineon said that it was buying Cree’s power and radio frequency business, which has expertise in gallium nitride, for $850 million. For wireless applications, that Wolfspeed unit had developed a process for layering gallium nitride on substrates of silicon carbide - another wide bandgap material used in light-emitting diodes and power electronics.
Reinhard Ploss, Infineon’s chief executive, said that the acquisition would help Infineon to remain relevant in a future increasingly powered by electricity and connected through radios. “With Wolfspeed we will become number one in SiC-based power semiconductors. We also want to become number one in RF power,” he said.
“This will accelerate the market introduction of these innovative technologies, addressing the needs of modern society – such as energy efficiency, connectivity and mobility,” Ploss said.