US Should Not Surrender Leadership in GaN Semiconductors: CSIS Researchers

US Should Not Surrender Leadership in GaN Semiconductors: CSIS Researchers
U.S. President Joe Biden visits Wolfspeed, a semiconductor manufacturer, in Durham, North Carolina, on March 28, 2023. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)
Frank Fang

The United States is at risk of surrendering its leadership in gallium nitride (GaN) semiconductor technology to China in the absence of new policies and investment, according to researchers from the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

“China’s goal is to become the leader in GaN semiconductors. It is pouring substantial resources into GaN-related research and development, aiming to gain an edge in this critical technology,” wrote Sujai Shivakumar, director and senior fellow of CSIS’s Renewing American Innovation Project, and two of the project’s research interns, in their article published on May 20.

“It is therefore concerning that Chinese firms like Innoscience, Suzhou Nanowin, HiWafer, and Sanan IC are today among the leading GaN technology companies around the world, operating a majority of the GaN fabrication and epitaxy facilities that grow the thin layers of crystals on substrates critical for the production of high-performance and reliable GaN devices,” the paper reads.

Semiconductors are tiny chips with microscopic circuitry that power a wide range of consumer products, from smartphones to electric vehicles. For decades, silicon has been the material of choice for making semiconductors due to its abundance and relatively low cost.

However, as electronic devices become more advanced and sophisticated, silicon semiconductors cannot meet the performance demands, which paves the way for the development of compound semiconductors such as GaN. Compared to conventional Silicon-based semiconductors, GaN semiconductors offer the advantages of lower power consumption, higher operating temperatures, and higher power density.

The process of manufacturing semiconductors requires thousands of steps, including deposition, lithography, and packaging. One of the deposition techniques is epitaxy, which is the formation of a layer of crystalline semiconductor material on a wafer.

Currently, the U.S. defense industry “already relies heavily” on GaN semiconductors in devices such as advanced radar systems, according to the article.

In October last year, New York-based chipmaker GlobalFoundries announced receiving $35 million in federal funding from the Department of Defense to accelerate the manufacturing of next-generation GaN semiconductors.

According to the company’s press release, the new GaN chips are “positioned to enable game-changing performance and efficiency in 5G and 6G cellular communications for infrastructure and handsets, automotive and industrial Internet of things (IoT), as well as power grids and other critical infrastructure.”
Securing a steady supply of gallium is also important, the researchers noted, pointing out that China accounted for 98 percent of the world’s primary low-purity gallium production in 2022.
In July 2023, China announced plans to restrict the export of gallium and germanium, which became effective the following month.

Due to China’s export restrictions, the researchers wrote that “there are growing concerns about the depletion of gallium stocks in North America.”

“As China starts to weaponize its critical minerals and restricts the rest of the world from accessing necessary resources for advanced technological development, there is a pressing need for the United States to reinforce its gallium supply chain more actively,” the paper reads.

Unlike some metals that can be mined, such as lithium and cobalt, gallium is extracted as a byproduct of aluminum and zinc production.

As a result, the researchers suggested that the U.S. government “friend-shoring” gallium production in Australia, India, and Canada, which are all members of the U.S.-led Minerals Security Partnership.

Other suggestions for the U.S. government included increasing local epitaxy capacity and focusing on research and development of GaN production technology.

“The growing adoption of GaN semiconductors is a major opportunity for the United States. It already leads in GaN technology research,” the paper reads. “With the correct mix of government policy and private initiative in developing and commercializing this new materials technology, the United States could be at the forefront of the next generation of semiconductor innovation.

“The geopolitical stakes are higher than ever, and the United States should not pass over the advantages of GaN in its semiconductor strategy,” it concludes. 
Frank Fang is a Taiwan-based journalist. He covers U.S., China, and Taiwan news. He holds a master's degree in materials science from Tsinghua University in Taiwan.
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