The rapid growth of electric vehicles, wind power green energy, and 5G markets has been facilitated by the advent of third-generation semiconductors that can withstand higher power, operate at higher frequencies and have excellent heat dissipation properties.
Third-generation semiconductors use materials such as gallium nitride (GaN) and silicon carbide (SiC), which are known for their characteristics of wide bandgap, high power density, high breakdown voltage, high cutoff frequency and high electron mobility making them suitable for high frequency communications and high-power electronic circuits. In addition, their high electron conversion efficiency also brings energy-saving advantages.
In recent years, there has been increasing demand for wide bandgap semiconductors, mainly due to the rapid development of markets, such as 5G communications and electric vehicles. Moreover, the issue of net-zero carbon emissions has also driven the development of high-efficiency wide bandgap semiconductors. The advancement of military defense, satellite and space technologies has also made compound semiconductors an indispensable material.
In recent years, due to the fight against global warming, sustainable development and green energy have become hot topics, which has furthered the development of new technologies, such as solar photovoltaics, wind power generation and vehicle electrification, which in turn have driven the continued improvement of power modules for power supply. Statistics show that the global power module market size in 2020 was about US$5.22 billion, and its main applications include wind/solar power generation, transportation, electric vehicles/hybrid electric vehicles, electric motors, uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) and other electric motor systems.
The demand for low-carbon solutions is driving the demand for electric vehicles, which is in turn driving the demand for power modules. In addition, due to the impact of the pandemic, more and more factories are adopting automation, which has increased the demand for motors. With the establishment of industrial automation coupled with AI or IoT the market for power modules reached US$6.02 billion in 2021. In the future, with the trend of electric vehicles, motors and green energy, the power module market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 10.5% to US$9.53 billion by 2026.
The main driving force behind the power module market is electric vehicles (EV)/hybrid electric vehicles (HEV) and electric motors, followed by renewable energy. The major development trend of EV/HEV is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions; and the demand for higher efficiency and automation in the manufacturing industry is driving the development of electric motors while the pandemic has driven factory automation to an even higher level.
For the power modules, high performance and high reliability are the overall goals for components. The industry is now focused on new semiconductor process technology, wafer structure and packaging materials for high efficiency, smaller size, better safety and heat management and lower costs.
Wide bandgap is a characteristic of compound semiconductors. The market demand for power components or modules made of silicon-based semiconductors in low-frequency and high-power applications is steady. However, when the application range moves towards high-frequency and high-power requirements, the existing products cannot meet the specifications. Therefore, a search for suitable materials has led to the next generation compound semiconductors.
At present, GaN transistors are used for applications below 200V because they are particularly suitable as power components for related applications. SiC transistors or modules are used for applications between 600V and 1,200V in competition with GaN transistors. In the 600-900V market, due to the competition in the circuit design skills of various companies, both SiC and GaN products have the opportunity to coexist in the market. However, for near 1,200V or even above 1,700V applications, the main player is the SiC transistor. SiC power components have excellent switching characteristics and thus can handle high-power and high-speed switching.
SiC is not only used as the main chip of power modules, but also as the substrate for high-frequency epitaxy. In the application of high frequency and high power, SiC is indispensable, leading some people to say that whoever controls SiC wins the world. The Department of Industrial Technology (DoIT) of Taiwan’s Ministry of Economic Affairs started developing third-generation semiconductor technology 20 years ago with the aim of helping Taiwan’s manufacturers seize market opportunities.
In terms of SiC crystal ingot manufacturing, four Taiwanese manufacturers have invested in this process, namely GlobalWafers, Winsheng Material Technology, Taisic Materials and Hermes-Epitek. For the power semiconductor series, Episil Precision focuses on epitaxy while TSMC and Vanguard International Semiconductor Corporation concentrate on wafer fabrication. Regarding the high-frequency semiconductors series, Episil Technologies specializes in epitaxy, and TSMC, Macronix International, Visual Photonics Epitaxy, GlobalWafers, Win Semiconductors are the main players in wafer fabrication, with Advanced Wireless Semiconductor Company planning to invest in it.
As far as the domestic industry is concerned, SiC crystal ingot manufacturing, epitaxy and wafer fabrication are still in their infancy. Although an industrial technology for GaN thin film on SiC by epitaxy process is available, this industry still relies on imports for the key consumables and equipment. Nevertheless, it is expected that with the growth of the power module market, the corresponding domestic supply chain, including other materials for the fabrication process, and the related production equipment can germinate and grow, cementing its position.
Compound semiconductors have become the key to the next stage of development of the technology industry. Driven by policy, the Industrial Technology Research Institute launched the "Southern Rainforest Project,” in the expectation that the establishment of a compound semiconductor ecosystem will bring various applications and new industries to Southern Taiwan in the same way that a rainforest nurtures all life within it and enriches the diverse local ecology. The introduction of private investment and enterprise energy will assist automotive component factories in Southern Taiwan in building a compound semiconductor power component ecosystem from design, manufacturing, packaging and testing to components and modules connected to automotive power electronics. The goal is to set up trial production and create spin-offs in the short term, and to establish technical capabilities and operational scales in compound semiconductors and power electronics to enter the market for higher-voltage rail cars, industrial motors, renewable energy grids and other markets, bringing high-tech power to the automotive industry and building a prosperous semiconductor industry cluster in Southern Taiwan.