A New Era of Power Devices


Power electronics are essential to nearly every electronic product we see and use today, from smartphones, tablets, televisions and gaming consoles, to automobiles, airplanes, trains, power plants, and windmills, among others. While leading-edge semiconductor device technologies such as FinFET transistors and 3D NAND memory function as the brains and data storage for many of these products, what is becoming ever more critical in today’s world are battery life and power consumption.
Comprised mainly of discrete power MOSFETs, insulated-gate bipolar transistor (IGBTs), thyristors, and power management integrated circuits, power devices are commonly classified as ‘More than Moore’ devices because they are not driven by technology node scaling, but instead by voltage, temperature handling, switching speed and efficiency and are primarily manufactured on older ≤200mm systems.
Demand for power devices is growing across all applications, and is expected to outpace the overall semiconductor device market by 3% (~7% for power devices vs. ~4% compounded annual growth rate for the semiconductor market between 2014-2019) according to market research firm Yole Development (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Market outlook for semiconductor power devices is healthy (source: Yole)
What’s note-worthy about the power device market are the segments driving greater growth. Traditionally, the largest sectors for power device consumption were computer and office equipment and consumer electronics, accounting for 23% and 20% respectively, according to Yole in 2014. Industry and automotive devices each accounted for about 18%. The power device market is expected to grow from $11.5 billion in 2014 to $17.2 billion in 2020 with electric and hybrids vehicles (EV/HEV) leading this growth.
Different types of applications require different voltage ranges. The fast-growing EV/HEV market utilizes power devices in the low- to medium-voltage range of 300 volts to 1,200 volts compared to locomotives that require higher-voltages in the range of 1.7 to 6.5kV. With the rise of EV/HEVs increasing demand for power devices, insulated-gate bipolar transistor (IGBT) devices in the low- to medium-voltage range are expected be a primary market driver.
As applications for power devices increase and diversify, there are concerns over the technology roadmap and path forward. Current Si-based device schemes are running out of steam as power device manufacturers are now making only incremental performance improvements from generation to generation. We are seeing the evolution of mainstream power devices pushing the performance of silicon to limiting intrinsic Si material properties.
Changes in device evolution are needed to meet power device market trends, entailing numerous materials inflections and challenges. But any shift must offer compelling advantages over mature, low-cost silicon technologies. New wide band gap materials such as SiC and GaN offer distinct advantages over Si but capturing market share will take innovation and persistence.
Stay tuned for future blogs on these issues.