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EPC: Ahead of the pack


EPC's chief executive, Alex Lidow, believes his GaN devices now beat silicon on performance and price, reports Rebecca Pool.

For EPC chief executive, Alex Lidow, this year's PCIM Europe 2019 has been all about applications. Presenting myriad enhanced-mode GaN FETs and ICs in end-products, the company is making a big play for 48 V DC-DC power conversion in advanced computing and automotives.

“The market that we are making a full-frontal attack on, is silicon at 48 V input,” he says. “We can get higher performance from GaN at a lower cost and with less design time... just think what it's going to be like in a few years.”

“It's been a race and GaN has always been in front on performance but not on price,” he adds. “But now we're in front on performance and price, and we're also accelerating; silicon's stuck in the mud.”

Alex Lidow of EPC.

In recent years, EPC has been introducing ever-smaller, cheaper and higher-performing chips. Recently delivering 100V eGaN FETs for 48V DC-DC conversion in servers and automotives, as well as automotive-qualified 80 V eGaN FETs for lidar applications in autonomous vehicles, Lidow says device costs now rival those of silicon chips.

“We've shrunk the die so much that, for the same ratings, we price our products at or below silicon [prices],” he says. “Price comparisons with silicon MOSFETS at a range of performance levels show that whether we're at low or high volumes, we're priced at the below average point.”

“And of course, the performance of GaN devices is so much superior to silicon MOSFETs at 48V,” he adds. “So our devices are smaller and more efficient than silicon MOSFETs, yet the same price, so what's not to like?”

Market moves

With market penetration a priority, Lidow has his sights set on data-centre and automotive applications. Following the success of the Open Compute Project - an organisation that shares designs of data-centre products - engineers are moving to 48 V rack-level power distribution systems to boost energy efficiency of the latest high performance computers and servers for data centres.

“We have this movement towards 48V... and today the preferred solutions are LLC-converter and buck converter [power conversion] topologies,” highlights Lidow. “And here, I will say with all due modesty, our products have swept all the new designs. Almost all of this is coming out of Asia, and it's a big deal for us.”

Meanwhile, the automotive industry continues its shift from 12 V to 48 V electrical distribution buses, particularly in mild hybrid vehicles, to handle power steering, power brakes, air conditioning, suspension, high-intensity headlamps, start-stop systems and more. What's more, new applications such as autonomous vehicles equipped with sensors, lidar and radar are also emerging.

As such, Tier 1 automotive suppliers are busy developing 48 V electrical systems, as well as bi-directional systems to support both 48 V and 12 V legacy accessories.

“Given all of this, automotives is huge for us,” says Lidow. “For example, the minute you go to even a mild hybrid vehicle, you have more electrical components drawing more and more power.”

“We have 80 V and 100 V FETs auto-qualified for DC to DC, lidar and headlamp applications and we're also designing into infotainment and radar systems,” he adds. “There's a heavy design effort here right now and the market will really be starting to reach volume [production] in 2021.”

A 200 V GaN FET from EPC: these devices are now said to outperform comparable silicon MOSFETs on size, power losses, power density as well as cost.

Indeed, for the EPC chief executive, the real action for GaN still lies at 400 V and lower, where the semiconductor's high frequency and switching speeds are imperative for applications such as lidar. “[Compared to lower voltages], the 600 V GaN market is a crowded field right now and has key vulnerabilities,” he says. “For starters, it's not such a performance-sensitive market, and both silicon and silicon carbide are also gunning for that 600 V node.”

At the same time, he highlights how remote control electronics are enabling the use of multi-level converters to hit the higher voltages. Case-in-point, at this year's PCIM, EPC demonstrated a 400 V input power factor correction circuit made from 200 V devices stacked in series.

“In this way you can pick up the higher power density at a lower cost,” he says. “So at these higher voltages, the threats for GaN are coming in from all directions... I'm not saying this isn't a valid market but it's going to be a difficult slog.”

So where next for EPC and GaN? In short, integration and monolithic GaN ICs.

In March this year, EPC revealed a monolithic half-bridge GaN transistor with level shifters and drivers integrated onto the chip. The transistors are currently with alpha-customers and Lidow expects to launch devices towards the end of this Summer.

What's more, he believes this latest IC marks the beginning of a new era for GaN power components. “Today we see power components as transistors or diodes but I predict this [monolithic device] will redefine what a power components is,” he says. “And I will also say that in five years, I doubt we will be launching discrete GaN transistors at all; instead we'll be launching power products that have features and functions.”

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