Gallium nitride (GaN) has evolved from a promising laboratory curiosity to a major force in RF power generation in less than a decade. Much has been made of its inherent advantages, leading to projections that it will displace gallium arsenide and silicon LDMOS. However, for a variety of reasons GaN is more likely to complement its more entrenched rivals than displace them.
When GaAs FETs first made their appearance in the lat e 1970s, editors of trade publications (including yours truly) projected that it would change the face of the RF and microwave industry. In hindsight, some of those projections were wildly optimistic and others proved to be conservative. Today, GaAs discrete devices, RFICs, and MMICs are ubiquitous, and their presence has contributed massively to the fortunes of the microwave industry as well as a companies that employ them in commercial and military small-and large-signal applications. They have also played an essential role in the development of the wireless industry and phased-array radars.
However, even in the commanding presence of GaAs, silicon LDMOS RF power transistors still rule the wireless base station market thanks to continued improvements in performance, packaging, and reliability. In addition, silicon germanium BiCMOS technology remains highly popular in Wi-Fi access points in many other applications. Even silicon bipolar junction transistors and MOSFETs are widely used. So while GaAs may be able to serve a wider range of applications than its silicon counterparts, it obviously has not relegated any of them to history.
The same scenario is likely to be true for GaN, even though it offers higher power density (more RF power per square millimeter of die), can operate at higher power levels at higher frequencies, and offers higher efficiency than GaAs. For example, in smartphones and other low-voltage devices, GaN’s ability to operate at higher voltages is not a major metric. GaN devices also cost more than comparable GaAs devices, although this disadvantage is already declining – and fewer GaN devices are required to deliver a specific RF output.
In short, it seems likely that GaN will coexist with GaAs for years to come, with GaN’s advantage in power density making it the only viable choice in solid-state amplifiers in which the highest power levels are required. The continued large financial commitment to the technology by DoD and industry will help it permeate more and more application s every year.
Learn more about GaN technology at http://www.mouser.com/applications/wide-bandgap/
Barry Manz is president of Manz Communications, Inc., a technical media relations agency he founded in 1987. He has since worked with more than 100 companies in the RF and microwave, defense, test and measurement, semiconductor, embedded systems, lightwave, and other markets. Barry writes articles for print and online trade publications, as well as white papers, application notes, symposium papers, technical references guides, and Web content. He is also a contributing editor for the Journal of Electronic Defense, editor of Military Microwave Digest, co-founder of MilCOTS Digest magazine, and was editor in chief of Microwaves & RF magazine.
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