Enabling New Applications With SiC IGBT And GaN HEMT For Power Module Design

Calculating the breakdown voltage of wide bandgap power devices is crucial.


The need to mitigate climate change is driving a need to electrify our infrastructure, vehicles, and appliances, which can then be charged and powered by renewable energy sources. The most visible and impactful electrification is now under way for electric vehicles (EVs). Beyond the transition to electric engines, several new features and technologies are driving the electrification of vehicles. The number of sensors in a vehicle is skyrocketing, driven by autonomous driving and other safety features, while a modern software-defined vehicle (SDV) is electrifying everything from air-conditioned seats to self-parking technology.

An important technology for EVs and SDVs is power modules. These are super high-voltage devices that convert one form of electricity to another (e.g., AC to DC), which is necessary to convert the vehicle battery energy to a current that can run the vehicles electrical system, including the drive train. These modules demand the highest power loads and are rated at 1000s of voltages – and the design of power devices, which are the fundamental electronic component of the power modules, is crucial, as a bad design can lead to catastrophe events.

Power devices, much more than other types of electrical devices, are designed for specific applications. In comparison, logic transistors can be used in everything from toasters to smartphones. Not only does the architecture of power devices change at higher voltages, different power ratings, or higher switching frequencies as needed, but the material can change as well.

New power requirements need wide-band gap materials

To meet new and future power demands for EVs, electric infrastructure, and other novel electrical systems, wide-band gap (WBG) materials are being developed and introduced. Silicon carbide (SiC) IGBTs are now available and being deployed, while gallium arsenide (GaN) HEMTs are a promising technology that is in the development stage.

Power density vs. switching frequency of power devices based on different materials.

Continuing with our EV example, SiC inverters can generally increase the potential range by approximately 10%, even after accounting for other design considerations. In addition, increasing the drive train voltage from 400V range to 800V can reduce the charging speeds by half. These voltages are only possible to realize with wide-band gap materials like SiC-based power devices. Tesla introduced SiC MOSFETs into its Model S back in 2018. Since then, numerous automotive manufacturers have also adopted SiC in their EVs, including Hyundai and BMW, for example.

GaN still has many design hurdles to overcame to improve reliability and decrease cost – but if it can be made affordable, perhaps the next realization of EVs will allow for charging in seconds with ranges of thousands of miles.

Simulating power devices

Because of the huge number of design parameters, simulation is important in the design of power devices. One crucial part for device design is the calculation of the breakdown voltage – the voltage at which the device can essentially melt, or catch fire, but will never operate again. These simulations need to be highly physics-based and capture the mechanisms by which electrons can be released or absorbed by the crystal lattice of these materials. The increasing band gaps in WBG materials like SiC and GaN increase the breakdown voltage. In addition, these materials have a smaller effective electron mass (i.e., the mass of an electron in a material dictates how fast it will move in an electric field) – which makes the switching frequency in devices based on these WBG materials faster.

A critical area of all electronics design is variability and reliability. Device performance needs to be stable and last a long time. A key factor for variability and reliability is defects in the crystal lattice. These defects, or traps, act as charge centers that can drastically impact how well a device works. Simulation can also help to identify the types of traps, providing a mechanistic understanding of how the traps will impact the device physics. Recently, Synopsys issued a paper using first-principles quantum solutions to characterize specific traps in SiC with QuantumATK.

Going forward, wind energy, solar, home appliances, and even the electric grid itself are going to need new devices with different structures and materials. The future is extremely exciting for power devices, which can be found in our EVs and will soon power a huge range of applications across our society.

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