Imagine: Right now the smart phone in your hand uses a tiny piece of a compound semiconductor, gallium arsenide (GaAs), as the transmitter power amplifier to connect you to the world. That chip is less than 1 millimeter x 1 millimeter – the area of a pinhead. To add even more context, there are 25.4 millimeters in an inch. The chip’s small size is enabled by GaAs’s electronic properties, which are superior to those of silicon. Compound semiconductor technologies are being used to develop the next generation of electronics for 5G networks and satellite broadband to connect the world.
OSD and DARPA Investment
Technologists saw the initial benefit of these electronic properties and began developing GaAs from the late 1970s, but a big boost came from a major investment from the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). These organizations initiated the Microwave and Millimeter Wave Integrated Circuits (MIMIC) program to develop this young technology for airborne phased array radar and smart munitions. Because of MIMIC, our battlefield commanders can receive and transmit secure communications to and from anywhere on earth.
RFMD and the Cellphone Explosion
As part of the MIMIC program, the government encouraged commercialization of the technology to support the production volumes needed to keep manufacturing processes healthy for high yield and lower cost. In the early ’90s, RFMD (today known as Qorvo) and Northrop Grumman developed GaAs cellphone power amplifiers. These amplifiers had better efficiency for longer talk time, a decreased amount of current “leakage” when the amplifier is switched off for longer standby time, and lower cost than existing technologies due to its smaller chip area. Better user experience and lower cost are gold in the commercial marketspace, and because of that the use of this technology grew exponentially. Today, more than 90% of the world’s cellphones use GaAs technology for the transmitter power amplifier. Qorvo, which grew from RFMD, is one of the leaders.
Bringing it back to OSD and DARPA
The initial MIMIC program investment led to U.S. leadership in the commercial GaAs industry, which has led to thousands of high-paying manufacturing jobs throughout the U.S. This represents a real success story that has benefited both our nation’s space and defense capability and our high-technology commercial industry.
Next Generation of Small
Technologists have since turned their sights to indium phosphide and gallium nitride, as well as 2.5D and 3D integration technologies, like DAHI, to merge these technologies with advanced silicon technologies. These technologies are starting to have a similar impact on both defense and commercial applications for even greater capabilities in even smaller packages.
Northrop Grumman is always looking for people to broaden their career in research and development. Join our team and work on the next generation of small.