GaN power trends for 2021

GaN power trends for 2021

Interviews |
By Nick Flaherty

2020 was certainly the year of the GaN charger and adapters ranging from 45W to 200W with a lot of after market chargers, says Jim Witham, CEO of Canadian chip developer GaN Systems.

“The difference in 2021 is we will see all the big guys come out with it. Huawei and Oppo have GaN chargers , then it’s what about Samsung and Apple will do. We will see some interesting developments there. They both announced they will not put chargers in the box but in the store and online and it’s clear that the big OEMs have the message of using their chargers rather the aftermarket.”

This works for the lower power chargers, but not yet for the 100W and above for laptops. “The computer guys will keep putting chargers in the box for exactly these reasons,” said Witham. “I don’t think we will ever get 200W into those boxes. You need 65W for the computer and 65W for a fast charger phone. You can argue 130W is necessary.”

The company’s GaN parts are designed into the next generation of Philips 65W charger launched earlier this month. The hexagonal charger includes three AC outlets and three USB ports (two USB-C and one USB-A) that can charge three digital devices at the same time while also supplying power to three 220V devices.

The growth in the adapter market is key for the maturing GaN device market.

“Volumes are way up and process costs are way down and that spurs more volume, it’s the semiconductor economic model,” said Witham. “The volumes of chips in the wall chargers really helps drive up the volume. It’s really just volume, the cost structure is similar to silicon so it’s really about volume in 2021.”

Next: GaN audio

Earlier in the year the company launched a reference design for a high quality 12V audio system. This will be more important with rise of wireless smart speakers, says Witham.

The design includes a two channel, 200W per channel (8 ohm) Class-D audio amplifier and companion 400W, continuous power audio-grade switch mode power supply with a direct +12V to +18V single rail supply and a boosted +12V to +18V single rail supply with a +/- 32V output for the best cost versus power output trade-off while maintaining the desired audio performance.

“The GaN audio Class D reference design has an amplifier and low ripple power supply. It has taken the audio design world by storm and you will see some really cool products in 2021, the difference is just incredible,” he said. “It’s starting with pro audio then the more mainstream guys are doing it as the costs have come down from the use in the chargers.”

Industrial GaN power

Industrial power supply design is being driven by the EU directive for efficiency in data centres by 2023, says Witham.

“2020 was the year of not building data centres as construction stopped. Spending was down 10% but home working means there is a huge increase in data,” said Witham.

This means more emphasis on energy efficiency but also on a smaller power supply that allows more servers into the rack with more servers per rack, he says.

“We are seeing a real emphasis on power density – as you make things more dense you have to be more efficient. An older supply has an energy density of 30W/in3, 50-60W/in3 is state of the art, we and we are now seeing 80 to 90W/in3, that’s the driving force.”

He points to Bel Power and Compuware which are supplying board makers such as Supermicro.

“We are seeing the controller chip companies adapt to GaN but it takes time, a couple of years to get a new IC out then the whole ecosystem will follow,” he said.

Automotive GaN 

The no brainer is the on-board charger (OBC) which sits alongside the DC-DC converter.

“A combination OBC and DC-DC converter needs a high frequency, efficient switch that operates from 500kHz to 2MHz. That’s a super wide range. With a combination system you can make the circuits simpler by putting the two together, the OBC with the power factor correction (PFC) and DC-DC converter so there’s a duplicate DC-DC – its harder to do but there are clear advantages in cost and weight,” he said.

Traction inverters is the next area but that’s low frequency so the frequency advantage of GaN goes away. SiC is very good at high loads for accelerating or carrying a big load and GaN is much better at light loads for city driving, smaller cars. It’s really the load profile that’s the differentiator.”

The competition with SiC is a long haul, he says.

“For automotive qualifications we defined a series of tests that were appropriate for automotive and GaN for the way GaN devices can fail, and this gives better data than SiC. SiC won round 1 with Telsa but it’s a 15 round fight,” he said.

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