Innovate Responsibly to Address Today’s Energy Challenges

The biggest challenge facing our generation is the increasing demand for energy. Global electricity consumption per head has grown by 50% in the last 30 years, driven by many societal changes. Our homes contain an ever-increasing number of electrical appliances, so the number of power outlets in the house has increased. We have witnessed a boom in consumer technology: Mobile phones, computers, laptops, and watches all take power. We see motors of all sizes where we’ve never seen motors before — from toys to support systems in vehicles to recliner seats to garden tools to life belts. And of course, we are now well into the era of the electric vehicle (EV), with electric aircraft in development, too. This digitization and electrification trend is expected to continue and to accelerate. Data centers today use about 1% of global electric energy. It is predicted that by 2030, processing, big data analysis, cryptocurrency mining, streaming data, artificial intelligence, and more will consume more than 20% of global electricity demand, 7% of which will be needed to power data centers alone. Looking at the big picture, we see conventional fuels running out — and most importantly of all, there is global warming. In the Paris Agreement in 2016, countries committed to reduce emissions, and many countries have now formally committed to be climate-neutral or net-zero by 2050. Further commitments to strengthen those targets were recently agreed in Glasgow at the COP26 summit. The most obvious change is the introduction of EVs as we step away from fossil fuels and embrace efficient forms of energy — making the contribution of power semiconductors more important than ever. Power-semiconductor makers have been placed in a position of responsibility, as our products are carbon-neutral enablers. As engineers, we must deliver improvements in power-conversion efficiency, which will require solutions other than standard silicon.   Figure 1 shows the theoretical physical limits of silicon FETs and that of devices made from two wide-bandgap (WBG) materials: silicon carbide (SiC) and gallium nitride (GaN). Silicon has obviously benefitted from many years of development, but it have its limitations. For relatively new technologies, SiC and GaN are already efficiently performing past the limits of traditional silicon and can only improve, so the door is wide open for WBG to play an important role in realizing the challenges of the next decades. (Source: Yole Développement, “GaN Power 2021: Epitaxy, Devices, Applications and Technology Trends,” 2021) Figure 2 shows the predicted growth of GaN based on a 2021 report by Yole Développement. The market is in its early stages but will show exponential growth in the coming years, with greater than 70% CAGR until 2026. This is a good indicator that WBG will be needed to address our overall power challenge: to use electric power in new applications in the most responsible way. To assess adopting GaN as a new technology, we must consider four key points: Performance: The fast development and adoption of WBG products has allowed performance levels that were unimaginable a few years ago — indeed, some new project requirements are impossible without WBG devices. However, there is still plenty of research and innovation to be done, especially for GaN, because although current performance levels are already attractive, they are not yet near their theoretical performance limits. Cost: Silicon solutions have well-understood and accepted cost/performance levels. By contrast, today, higher-priced WBG devices mainly target advanced applications in which performance is the key factor. However, GaN costs will reduce, allowing the proliferation of WBG technologies, as I will show later. Availability: This is a critical factor in the semiconductor world — the implementation of a new technology can become widespread only if devices are available and there is security of supply. Reliability: This encompasses all other considerations — it is applicable to product performance, to commercial sustainability, and to the guarantee of availability. All of these elements must be reliable. Please visit the ebook for the complete article

Innovate Responsibly to Address Today’s Energy Challenges

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