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No Hype Here: SiC MOSFETs Are Very Real

We live in a world where we are surrounded by hype. All sorts of products and services, including movies, TV shows, and convenience apps, are shamelessly and breathlessly promoted; often even before they are actually available. The core public relations (PR) machine of just a few years ago has ballooned to include social media, paid-for viral postings, product placements… and, well, you get the idea.

Even the electronics industry, which traditionally was low hype, has gotten on the hype train. If you doubt this, just think about CES (formerly the Consumer Electronics Show) where over 100,000 people and hundreds of companies come to see and be seen, trying to generate some of that elusive buzz.

In fact, the hype business has become so routine that Gartner, a market consulting firm, publishes an annual hype graphic for emerging technologies based on a standard template (Figure 1). They add and move topics as they update it every year (Figure 2). Of course, everyone can have a different assessment about what should be on the curve and where it should be.

Figure 1: The generic hype cycle template can be used to visually position where technology developments seem to be in their life cycle, from initial concept to acceptance and widespread use. (Image source: Wikipedia)

Figure 2: The Gartner 2018 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies1 provides one view, but it should give us all a reason to stop and recalibrate promises and expectations versus reality. (Image source: Gartner)

Despite the hype now associated with consumer electronics, critical supporting segments have largely avoided it. For example, the annual Applied Power Electronics Conference (APEC) event is well attended and reported, but its hype-ness is the antithesis of CES. Yes, vendors show what they have released and what’s coming soon, but the claims at these presentations are orders of magnitude below those of CES. Ironically, it’s often the developments seen at APEC that later enable those at CES.

Perhaps the low-key nature of power-related advances is because the folks who do power components and designs are not flashy. In general, the power-related community is cautious, conservative (in the design sense), and not willing to bet everything on a radical, new technology until it has been proven across many units and many operational hours. They also know that a good power supply, however unglamorous, is the foundation of a solid product, and power supply shortcomings generally can’t be fixed “after the fact” by downloading an upgrade.

Consider silicon carbide (SiC)-based MOSFET technology, which has been the subject of research for decades. This effort did not come with overhyped predictions that it would revolutionize power device performance compared to silicon-only MOSFETs. Instead, there was cautious optimism tempered by “but there’s still more work to do.” Now, the reality is that there is very good news about SiC MOSFETs. Vendors made steady technical improvements and as a result this technology has made big inroads into power conversion designs.

How big is the market for these devices, and how fast is it growing? The answer depends on who you ask, of course. One forecast from MarketWatch2 says the global market for SiC power devices will grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 35.73% from 2018 - 2023. (Wow! A prediction five years out to four significant digits, that’s both ludicrous and diminishes the credibility of the extrapolation, in my opinion.) Another one from Yole Developpement3 shows a market size of $461 million in 2019, and a CAGR of “just” 31%. A third claims the market will reach $6.04 billion by 2025 with a CAGR of 15.7%.

Regardless of the numbers you choose (and there are many others available), one thing is clear: SiC-based devices are now very real, in widespread designs, and widely used in applications ranging from electric vehicles (EVs) to motor drives to alternative energy subsystems. A lot of this is due to the fact that today’s SiC MOSFETs are mature second- and even third-generation components.

For example, since Cree introduced the first commercial, packaged Si-based MOSFETs in 2011, two more generations have been developed. For their third-generation devices, such as the Cree C3M0075120K (Table 1), the top-tier specifications have improved by between 20% and 100%, depending on the particular parameter, which is a significant gain.

Table 1: Top-tier specifications of the Cree C3M0075120K, a third-generation device, only tell part of the story of technical progress for this SiC-based MOSFET. (Image source: Cree)

Equally important, vendors, application engineers, and designers have learned more about the idiosyncrasies of these power devices. Let’s be honest: MOSFETs of all types have more than their fair share of subtleties with respect to drive requirements, turn on and turn off characteristics, thermal issues, and load topologies. It’s perhaps counterintuitive, but these three-terminal devices have an extraordinary number of data sheet graphs characterizing their various static and dynamic performance at nominal and extreme temperature; the well-known safe operating area (SOA) chart is just one of many.

Fortunately, SiC FETs were never touted with the hype that accompanies so many other technologies; that would have been “out of character.” In contrast, do you remember when, just a few years ago, that 3D TV was touted as the next big thing? Was that driven by genuine user needs or by vendor desires to obsolete installed TVs and push new ones? (You know the answer!)

What about artificial intelligence (AI), 5G, autonomous vehicles, and quantum computing? They are certainly on the hype curve, yet even now some of the glow is off them (looks like those self-driving cars are further away than the hype indicated, no surprise there). As for those journalists who wrote with confidence that these cars will reduce accidents and fatalities by some specific percentage they cited, um… based on what evidence, if you don’t mind me asking?

It’s good that the power-related segment of our industry has, thus far, resisted going that route and has instead focused on substance, and step-at-a-time announcements. That is certainly a comforting thought: I want my power supplies to create “hot air” (admittedly as little as possible) rather than run on it. Even better: I checked the last ten years of the Garner hype charts, and SiC did not appear on any of them. It looks like it’s been a stealthy revolution in switching power components.

 

References:

1 – 5 Trends Emerge in the Gartner Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies

(https://www.gartner.com/smarterwithgartner/5-trends-emerge-in-gartner-hype-cycle-for-emerging-technologies-2018/)

2 –Global Silicon Carbide (SiC) Power Devices Market 2019-2023 | Industry Analysis of Semiconductor & Electronics sector by Region, Growth expected to reach at CAGR of 35.73%

(https://www.marketwatch.com/press-release/global-silicon-carbide-sic-power-devices-market-2019-2023industry-analysis-of-semiconductor-electronics-sector-by-region-growth-expected-to-reach-at-cagr-of-3573-2019-08-30)

3 –GaN and SiC power device: market overview (Dr. Milan Rosina)

(http://www1.semi.org/eu/sites/semi.org/files/events/presentations/02_Milan%20Rosina_Yole.pdf)

About this author

Image of Bill Schweber

Bill Schweber is an electronics engineer who has written three textbooks on electronic communications systems, as well as hundreds of technical articles, opinion columns, and product features. In past roles, he worked as a technical web-site manager for multiple topic-specific sites for EE Times, as well as both the Executive Editor and Analog Editor at EDN.

At Analog Devices, Inc. (a leading vendor of analog and mixed-signal ICs), Bill was in marketing communications (public relations); as a result, he has been on both sides of the technical PR function, presenting company products, stories, and messages to the media and also as the recipient of these.

Prior to the MarCom role at Analog, Bill was associate editor of their respected technical journal, and also worked in their product marketing and applications engineering groups. Before those roles, Bill was at Instron Corp., doing hands-on analog- and power-circuit design and systems integration for materials-testing machine controls.

He has an MSEE (Univ. of Mass) and BSEE (Columbia Univ.), is a Registered Professional Engineer, and holds an Advanced Class amateur radio license. Bill has also planned, written, and presented on-line courses on a variety of engineering topics, including MOSFET basics, ADC selection, and driving LEDs.

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