Mar 3rd 2017

Say Hello to Gallium Nitride, the Future of High Energy


The power semiconductor is undergoing a subtle revolution. Gallium nitride (GaN), a hard crystalline compound, is being heralded as a solution to meet the demands of high-performance power transistors. This material is faster and more efficient than other high-power semiconductor materials but, until recently, was not as technically mature.

GaN Wurtzite crystal structure (Wikipedia Commons)

GaN is as versatile as it is efficient. Technology companies like Northrop Grumman are at the forefront in developing and commercializing the compound for many applications. “[GaN] technology will enable the next generation of wideband communications, radar, electronic warfare, and navigation,” says Mike Wojtowicz, Northrop Grumman Fellow. “It has no equal when it comes to superior transmission and conversion of electromagnetic energy.”

Say Hello to Gallium Nitride

Although GaN may have only just stepped into the mainstream spotlight, the material has long been a favorite for high-energy electronics. It is efficient and durable, making it perfect to power radar and communications satellites. For Northrop Grumman radar, that means better tracking and better threat detection.

According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, gallium nitride has many advantages over other semiconductors: less resistance, higher efficiency and faster switching capability.

Those advantages are ideal for use in power amplifiers and equipment that needs to survive in the harshest of elements. Point-to-multipoint radio systems, satellite communications terminals and aerospace components all benefit from GaN.

Northrop Grumman’s AN/TPS-80 G/ATOR

GaN technology also uses less power. The widespread adoption of GaN could help reduce energy consumption, which is an important consideration as the world becomes increasingly digital. The only disadvantage of GaN has been its price, but that has changed recently as new production processes have made GaN usage in consumer products more feasible.

GaN You See the Future?

If you look around your home, chances are you have replaced the standard incandescent light bulb with an energy-efficient LED bulb. Unlike traditional bulbs, LEDs are a semiconductor material that light up when an electrical current passes through them. The white light is actually the combination of multiple colors and a phosphor material that converts amber, red, blue and green into that bright, white light that illuminates our homes.

LED is still an expensive option to light one’s home, but new LED using GaN grown on silicon wafers, instead of more costly sapphire wafers, with another buffer material to compensate for thermal expansion can make LED bulbs cheaper and more efficient. The impact of GaN is even more powerful if you consider all the fluorescent bulbs used in large retail stores or offices that could be replaced by LED bulbs.

Data centers demand a massive amount of energy. The tech giants of the world require huge data centers, but the adoption of GaN will make these costly necessities more energy efficient, according to MIT.

Even the cumbersome laptop adapter could be a thing of the past with GaN transistors. Instead of a brick attached to the power cord, adapters could be built within the laptop itself.

We’re still far away from flying cars, but electric cars and autonomous car development would benefit greatly from GaN. While the electric minivan may not be as exciting as the electric hot rod, there are only a few select models of the former currently available due to the current limitations in powering these larger vehicles. The introduction of GaN can create more efficient power cells to fuel electric car growth, according to VentureBeat. GaN can also improve the electronics in autonomous cars, such as laser-tracking systems, to increase accuracy and safety.

In a world where technology is increasingly demanding more energy and better efficiency, it’s good to have GaN around.

From aircraft to satellite, materials are the ingredients of any big idea. At Northrop Grumman, you could be part of something big.

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