The EU has commissioned a project to develop an independent supply chain for gallium nitride (GaN) power devices for space.
The €2.4m SAGAN project addresses Electrical Power Systems (EPS) for future satellite platforms and payloads. This is a key technology for project such as data centres in orbit.
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“Currently, Europe does not have the capabilities to produce GaN transistors for space unless relying on external countries for most of the supply chain, which can never be taken for granted. SAGAN will establish a non-dependent supply chain (design, manufacturing, processing, and qualification testing) for GaN transistors that are suitable for space applications,” says the project specification.
The European Space Agency (ESA) is proposing the EEE Space Component Sovereignty for Europe initiative for approval by Europe’s space ministers at the Agency’s Council at Ministerial Level this week.
“Demonstration and testing is really key to greater adoption of GaN, despite its clear advantages,” said ESA engineer Václav Valenta. “Mission managers tend towards tried and tested technology choices because they desire reliability above all. So rigorous assessment and testing of GaN technology on the ground is essential to understand its potential and limitations, and find solutions making the technology space-compliant in terms of reliability margins. This is what will eventually lead to the mainstream use of GaN technology in space.”
However ESA does have a project under evaluation for high voltage and high switching speed DC-DC converters based on GaN technology.
Work programmes at ESA have already been successfully completed to demonstrate fabrication of GaN HEMT “normally on” device technology using a silicon CMOS compatible production line for low cost application, radiation hard performance has been demonstrated and a preliminary internal ESA demonstration worked at a 10MHz switching frequency has shown promising results, it says. This is considerably higher than the 1 to 2MHz achieved for commercial GaN designs.
There have been several projects in recent years on Gan for RF rather than power.
ESA’s ESTEC technology centre in the Netherlands recently oversaw lifetime testing of GaN-based high-power amplifier monolithic microwave integrated circuits (MMICs).
Built by RF specialist United Monolithic Semiconductors (UMS) in Ulm, Germany, these devices are the basis of a Dual Solid State Power Amplifier design being developed by SENER in Spain through ESA’s PACIS3 Partnership Project.
This amplifier is set to operate aboard a pair of next generation Hisdesat telecom satellites, due to launch in 2023-4. OMMIC in France also makes RF GaN devices for space
In 2008 ESA initiated its GaN Reliability Enhancement and Technology Transfer Initiative (GREAT2), bringing together leading research institutes and manufacturing industry to set up an independent European supply chain to manufacture high-quality GaN devices for space communication systems. This has led to UMS and OMMIC as suppliers.
In the US, EPC set up a joint venture for GaN power in space with VPT, part of the Heico Electronic Technologies Group. VPT supplies DC-DC converters and EMI filters to ESA, BAE Systems and Thales.
However a significant European GaN supplier, Nexperia, is owned by a company that is considered to have links to the Chinese state and so could be ruled out of the European supply chain.
This ownership by Wingtech Technology has led to Nexperia’s acquisition of Newport Wafer Fab and its GaN power foundry in Wales to be challenged by the UK government on the grounds of national security. The government is currently encouraging a deal.
Another European supplier, STMicroelectronics, is also developing GaN-on-silicon HEMT power and RF technology at fabs in France and Italy, but has not targeted space applications.
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