Tech

A new material that shrinks phone chargers, turns on electric cars and enables 5G

If you’re reading this on screen, you’re literally looking into the future.

Metal gallium is present in most LED screens, and in LED lights that currently provide many indoor lighting. Lesser known than silicon, it has been taken over in many places where silicon once dominated, from antennas to charging bricks to other energy conversion systems known as “power electronics.” In the process, it enables a surprising number of new technologies, from fast-charging mobile phones to lightweight electric vehicles to the more power-efficient data centers that run the services and apps we use.

Gallium, a by-product of extracting aluminum from rock, has a very low melting temperature, so Hold in hand.. By itself, it’s not very useful. When combined with nitrogen to make gallium nitride, it becomes a hard crystal with valuable properties. These are the laser sensors used in many self-driving cars, the antennas that enable today’s high-speed cellular wireless networks, and increasingly important electronics for more efficient energy harvesting of renewable energy. Can be seen in.

Much of the most specific thing made possible by gallium nitride, also known as GaN, is happening in power electronics.Today you can buy a small USB-C charger with enough juice Powering laptops, mobile phones and tablets at the same timeAlthough not bigger than the much less powerful version that has been with the gadget for years.

After years of shipping an iPhone with a terribly slow charging brick, Apple finally killed it. WSJ’s Joanna Stern kills it harder and recommends the best fast chargers and wireless options from Anker, Aukey, Belkin and more.Photo Illustration: The Wall Street Journal Preston Jesse

Power electronics, which convert one voltage level to another, are also key to many aspects of electric vehicles. Jim Witham, CEO of chip maker GaN Systems, said EVs are smaller, lighter, more efficient, and generate less heat, allowing them to travel farther on charge. He adds that these properties are also good at squeezing significantly more electricity from renewable energy sources such as solar panels. Even the slightest efficiency gains in converting electricity, such as grids that utilize renewable energy, including battery storage, add up when they occur multiple times.

GaN can be a miraculous material, facing competition from proven true silicon, and a growing list of new materials showing the potential to revolutionize electronics. Still, its uses are expanding. GaN Systems also has customers testing chips in the data center. In data centers, reducing power consumption and waste heat can lead to significant savings in electricity bills. None of our data center customers have publicly approved the use of this technology.

Not so long ago, there was a time when GaN was just a laboratory curiosity. The Pentagon was then interested in looking for new types of electronics to drive next-generation radar and wireless communications. Since around 2000 DarupaThe Pentagon’s advanced research institute says it has driven the experiments needed to overcome many of its commercialization hurdles. Rachel Oliver, Professor of Materials Science and Director of the Gallium Nitride Center at the University of Cambridge.

In addition to the myriad of applications in the civilian world, GaN is now appearing in military hardware used for everything from radio interference to missile defense. All of this is made possible by its unique characteristics.

In contrast to silicon, GaN can handle a relatively large amount of electricity. It’s convenient and relatively safe because it has the unusual property of not only being very good at moving electrons, but also being very good at keeping electrons out of unwanted places, Dr. Oliver said. Says.

Metallic form of gallium; The unusual properties of gallium nitride, a crystalline compound, make it useful in a variety of advanced electronics.


Photo:

The Wall Street Journal Gabriel Zimmer

In addition to the ability to conduct electricity, the ability of GaN to operate at frequencies much higher than silicon can (30-500 times faster in commercial applications) makes the charger much smaller than traditional chargers or It can supply more power.

As our entire world, from energy sources to the devices that use it, becomes more and more electrified, it more efficiently performs the important but often overlooked function of converting electricity from one form to another. Everything can be both ubiquitous and a huge source of income. As a result, there are dozens of start-ups and established companies in this area, including Navitas Semiconductor, GaN Systems, Power Integrations, Texas Instruments, Infineon and STMicroelectronics.

However, the market for GaN power electronics is still in its infancy. George Brocklhurst, Gartner’s Vice President of Research, said the overall market for all transistors in 2019 was about $ 16 billion, while the types of markets offered by Navitas, GaN systems, etc. were $ 45 million.

There are other sources that have the potential to be revolutionary Starting to compete with silicon like grapheneHowever, GaN microchips have the great advantage of being able to be manufactured in the same type of manufacturing facility (called a fab) as traditional microchips, says Stephen Oliver, Head of Marketing at Navitas.

“”
Toyota recently unveiled a prototype vehicle equipped with gallium nitride-based electronics.

Because it does not require state-of-the-art chip manufacturing technology, GaN chips can be manufactured with old paid fabs that could otherwise be idle. Fortunately, the side effect is that the supply of GaN chips is not keeping up with the wider range. Global shortage of semiconductors, Oliver says. Navitas chips are now manufactured at TSMC’s oldest fab, which is still in operation. Taiwan Chip Manufacturing Titan..

GaN uptake is now very widespread and prices are falling rapidly. As a result, you can now buy a GaN charger for $ 20 to $ 70, which is in all respects better than the one that comes with your gadget.

Companies like GaN Systems are pushing this technology to other areas.Both

BMW

And Toyota are investors in GaN systems. In 2019, Toyota unveiled a prototype vehicle with fully GaN-based power electronics, from in-vehicle chargers to LED lights.

However, GaN chips are not the winner of Slam Dunk. Advances in materials science have created a small number of competitors. According to Gartner’s Mr. Brocklehurst, traditional silicon power electronics remain dominant in most applications, and in the automotive world, silicon carbide, an alternative with many of the same properties as GaN, has a far greater track record. It’s long.

An array of promising but poorly understood substances can run all of the above substances for their money, including gallium oxide and aluminum oxide. Both are semiconductors that can be patterned into microchips, says Dr. Oliver.

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The material revolution has not taken root in processors that power computers, the largest market for semiconductors. Until recently, Dr. Oliver says that GaN can only do half what traditional silicon transistors can do.

So far, GaN cannot handle the current flow required to perform the types of calculations performed by traditional silicon logic chips. However, recent findings suggest that it may be changing.

“If I was asked if I would use GaN for logic a few years ago, I would say,’Oh, don’t be ridiculous,’” she says. “But now it’s possible and could lead to faster devices.”

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Write to Christopher Mims christopher.mims@wsj.com

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A new material that shrinks phone chargers, turns on electric cars and enables 5G

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