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Silicon carbide (SiC) has been used in a variety of applications for well over 100 years. Today, however, the semiconductor material is gaining more popularity than ever before, largely driven by its usage in industrial applications.
In this article, we will explore why SiC is seeing a sudden rise in popularity, what makes it such a good material for industrial applications, and some of the applications driving its adoption growth.
SiC: an overview
While SiC’s use in electronic applications dates all the way back to the early 1900s, its use as a semiconductor material did not start to really gain traction until the 1990s. It was at this point that it was first used in Schottky diodes, FETs, and MOSFETs. While SiC has properties that make it uniquely adept at handling high–frequency, high–power, and high–temperature loads, its adoption was slow, largely because of issues in production.
In nature, SiC is an extremely rare substance, found primarily in remnants of meteorites. And while it can be created synthetically, early efforts to do so produced inconsistent results. Edge dislocations, triangular defects, and other issues slowed the commercialization of SiC as a semiconductor, and despite its many potential applications, its usage remained relatively rare.
But what makes SiC such an effective semiconductor? As a wide–bandgap semiconductor material, it has a wider energy difference than other semiconductor materials (such as traditional silicon), which gives it higher thermal and electronic properties. This makes the material a star in high–power, high–temperature, and high–frequency applications. In fact, when compared with silicon semiconductors, SiC offers 10× higher dielectric breakdown strength, 3× higher energy bandgap, and 3× higher thermal conductivity.
These performance benefits result in high overall system efficiency, with increased power density and lower system losses.
While the prowess of SiC as a semiconductor material has been known for years, as mentioned before, issues with production made adoption slow. Today, however, manufacturers such as Wolfspeed, Infineon, onsemi, and more have improved manufacturing processes such that the earlier concerns about SiC’s quality are largely a thing of the past. As a result, its usage is seeing rapid growth.
The perfect storm for SiC adoption
Right now, semiconductor manufacturers with silicon carbide expertise find themselves in a tantalizing position. The manufacturing processes have improved significantly, increasing both the yield and reliability of synthetically made SiC. At the same time, application where performance demands call for a material such as SiC are increasing rapidly. The result is a marketplace where SiC–based devices are growing in popularity at incredible rates.
Let us explore some of the industries where SiC is gaining a foothold.
One of the largest growth markets for SiC semiconductors is in electric vehicles (EVs) and EV charging systems. On the vehicle side, SiC is an excellent choice for motor drives — not only in the EVs on our roadways but also electric trains.
SiC’s performance and reliability make it an excellent choice for motor–drive power systems, and because of its high performance–to–size ratio as well as the fact that SiC–based systems often require using fewer overall components, using SiC can decrease system size and reduce weight — key considerations for EV efficiency.
SiC is also finding growing use in EV battery–charging systems. One of the biggest hurdles for EV adoption is the time it takes to replenish the batteries, and manufacturers are looking for ways to decrease charging time — and for many, the answer is SiC. By using SiC power components in off–board charging solutions, EV charging station manufacturers can leverage SiC’s fast switching speed and high–power–delivery capabilities to deliver better charging performance. The result is as much as a 2× faster charging time.
Data centers and uninterruptible power supplies
With more and more organizations undergoing digital transformation, the role of the data center in businesses of all sizes and verticals is only growing. These data centers act as the central nervous system for mission–critical data of all kinds and are imperative to sustained and successful business operations — but that comes at a cost.
In fact, the International Energy Agency estimates that 1% of all global electricity is consumed by data centers — and that doesn’t account for the energy used for cryptocurrency mining. One of the biggest drivers of this energy consumption is the electricity used to keep these data centers cool, with air conditioning and fan systems needing to run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
But imagine if there was a material with improved thermal efficiencies — with the ability to run cooler without sacrificing performance. That material is SiC. According to Wolfspeed, power supplies utilizing their SiC products had thermal performance improvements that deliver as much as a 40% savings in cooling energy costs. Furthermore, with improved power density, data centers that use SiC components can fit more equipment in less space.
Another component of these data centers are uninterruptible power supplies (UPS), which help ensure systems stay up and running even in the face of power outages. SiC has found a home in UPS designs because of its reliability, efficiency, and ability to deliver clean power with low losses. When a UPS takes DC power and converts it to AC power, there will be losses — losses that shorten the time for a UPS to provide backup power. SiC helps reduce these losses, increasing UPS capacity. With higher power density, UPS systems can also provide higher performance without an expanded footprint — a key factor when space constraints are a consideration.
SiC for today and tomorrow
With growing demand for electric vehicles, both at the consumer and municipal level, as well as an increasing need for data centers to support the vast amounts of data generated by IoT, software, and other data–heavy operations, SiC is certainly a semiconductor of the future.
As more manufacturers expand their SiC offerings, production processes continue to improve and drive down costs. As applications grow, SiC will remain a key part of semiconductor design for years to come.