Michael Markides, director of power and utilities at IHS Technology attended this year's American Power Electronics Conference (APEC) in Long Beach, California. The IHS Power team dove into key industry topics like the ever-increasing electrification of automobiles, expected growth from smart energy applications, and the total market slowdown that began in the second half of 2015. The most notable topic, however, was the presence of many gallium-nitride (GaN) specialist suppliers and their optimism this new technology will at last be rapidly adopted in the market.

Wideband gap materials, namely silicon carbide (SiC) and GaN, have been commonly used in the semiconductor industry for many years, but market adoption has not reached the levels the industry has been hoping for. While these new materials offer the promise of better performance than silicon (Si), numerous issues have held back their adoption.

First, price is always at the core of the argument, but to date only in a few niche applications, and only with a few products, does the increase in performance justify the higher price. For example SiC has made inroads into the market for Schottky diodes, because the increased cost is justified by better performance of forward voltage, higher operating temperature, decreased leakage current, and lower reverse recovery charge (Qrr). The second main reason for poor adoption of wideband gap materials is the difficulties in supplying the material, manufacturing, packing and engineering, which has been a major reason GaN has not yet made major inroads in the market.

At APEC 2016, GaN suppliers were optimistic, noting major improvements in design and engineering to increase the reliability and performance of GaN transistors, which now gives them a much more realistic path to adoption. GaN also has greater cost-reduction potential, because GaN power devices can be grown on silicon substrates that are larger and less expensive than SiC.