Gallium nitride (GaN)-based power transistors make up a fraction of all power transistors used by industrial and auto customers today, but the technology is having a positive impact during a global chip shortage that has led to temporary vehicle assembly plant shutdowns.
GaN Systems, a private company that makes more GaN chips than any other company, announced recently it has shipped 20 million of its GaN transistors since it began doing so in 2014. The company, based in Ottawa, Canada, employs 100 engineers while most of its chip designs are fabricated by TSMC in Taiwan.
There is growing interest in using GaN over other solutions such as silicon-based integrated circuits and Silicon Carbide (SiC), said GaN Systems CEO Jim Witham in an interview with Fierce Electronics. “My job is to stay ahead of the demand curve, and we’ve been doing that with no issues,” he said.
“Silicon chips have been used in power applications for decades and GaN just does it better,” he said. GaN chips are four times smaller and lighter and cut power losses by four times, often at reduced cost. They require fewer materials to produce. “That’s what’s driving demand away from silicon to GaN power.”
With the advent of electric vehicles, there will be “tremendous growth” in GaN transistor revenues, he said. Witham put the size of the GaN overall global market at about $8 billion in annual revenues recently, to grow to $18 billion in 2025, with $6 billion of the increase due to EVs.
Witham said the biggest factor in why GaN is important to EVs is the large number of semiconductors used in EV vehicles. There are about $200 worth of semiconductors in a gas-powered vehicle, compared to about $600 in semiconductors in an EV. “That $400 is a huge new totally addressable market,” he said.
GaN is also used in power chargers, and there are now about 200 models on the market able to charge electronics of various sizes and shapes. “The GaN charger market is real evidence of what’s happening” with overall interest in GaN, Witham said.
Silicon-based chipmakers are the biggest competition to GaN companies, and are dominated by Infineon Technologies, STMicroelectronics and ON Semiconductor. The biggest GaN competitors to GaN Systems are Infineon, Transphorm Semiconductor, Panasonic and Power Integrations.
GaN power chips will be used in a wide variety of industrial settings where motors are prevalent, not just vehicles, Witham noted.
“Power is important. With more data in our lives and more CO2 in our lives…having the best power and using the least materials is important to our society,” Witham said. “We’re the new kid on the block to change the economics. Semiconductors are sexy.”
As CEO of a Canadian company and also a resident of California, Witham brings an unusual perspective to the U.S.-China trade relationship that he believes was hurt under the Trump administration. The stage is now set for years of bifurcation in production of electronics between a China-led economy and a Western-led economy, he said.
“As an American, American jobs are a good idea, and as a Canadian CEO, I say Canada should be building its own transistors. I am more of a globalist and think that fighting among demographics is not the best, but it’s a reality,” he said.
Under the Trump administration, “a lot of damage was done” to the U.S.-China relationship, Witham said. “I think it would be better if that relationship could be healed. I think the world will get more and cheaper electronics if the competitive advantage is allowed to happen and the world works together. I’m afraid the relationship is broken. There’s going to be a China design and a non-China design and we’re headed towards that. It’s not the right direction, but that’s what’s happening.”
With bifurcation, “you end up duplicating everything,” Witham added. “If you are trying to minimize expenses and maximize output, that’s not the right way to go, but that’s the reality of the world. There will be two designs and two market places. You will have chargers made in China and chargers made in the rest of the world...and each will then take the best from each other. You’ll have two groups of people doing the same things. It’s not as efficient as it could have been. It’s not the end of the world if that happens, but it’s not the most efficient way to do it.”