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Gallium Nitride: The answer to India’s semiconductor woes?

There’s no need to establish how crucial semiconductors and their industry are to the world of technology today. Chances are, you are reading this article on a device powered by the same. Even if you’re not, if their importance is lost on you, then you’re in the wrong place.

Currently, China has nearly 60% hold on the world’s semiconductor business with that number poised to grow in the coming years. Even after China, there’s a long list of regions like the Americas, Europe, Japan after which there might be a spot for India. On the other hand, we tend to mostly import our electronics or manufacture a large quantity of electronics devices based on imported semiconductors. According to a NOVONOUS report, the consumption of semiconductors in India, mostly import-based, is estimated to rise from $10.02 billion in 2013 to $52.58 billion by 2020 at a dynamic CAGR of 26.72%. Our strength lies in chip design, which our lacking manufacturing capabilities have failed to capitalise on – yet.

A new hope

Before we begin, we need to segue into our understanding of what semiconductors are made of. Without going into extraneous details, it suffices to say that silicon is an excellent material for building transistors – the things that make your processors run – and is generally what they’re made of. Now, silicon transistors are generally good at working under 400 volts. When you switch over the choice of material to gallium nitride, however, the operating threshold moves up from 400 volts to 900 volts. Additionally, gallium nitride has a lot of usefulness when it comes to power electronics.

Gallium Crystals

It is exactly this that Mr Srinivasan Raghavan had in mind when he moved back to India more than a decade ago. When he arrived here, though, he found a country lacking the expertise to produce and work with gallium nitride. Why is it important for India to have its own gallium nitride fabrication process? Currently, India is too far behind in the silicon-based fabrication game to catch up. Whereas, the gallium nitride process, cheaper than its silicon counterpart, is soon to become widespread in electronics manufacturing.

For India, the power electronics market currently stands at $36.93billion and is expected to grow to $51.01billion by 2023 – less than five years from now – with increased usage of gallium nitride devices at the heart of this growth. So, to achieve India’s goal of zero trade deficit for electronics, which currently stands higher than gold and lower than only crude oil in terms of imported value, investment in gallium nitride fabrication is essential. Are we doing it as fast as possible? That’s a slightly different story.

The build up

The first ray of hope for this project was in 2009 when the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) gave Srinivasan a grant of 10 crores to set up a gallium nitride reactor at IISc. By then IISc already had some state of the art nanotechnology facilities, thanks to the Mission on Nanoscience and Technology, often called the Nano Mission, which was started in 2007. A part of this facility is a 1400 sqft room where the level of dust particles is a few millionths of that outside the facility. Not only does this give the researchers the capability to develop new semiconductor devices, it also allows them to test their applications successfully.

Molecular structure of Gallium Nitride

The most difficult part of this project came in the initial days. Silicon tends to repel gallium nitride the way water repels oil, yet it was essential to growing nitride films on silicon wafers. To overcome this problem, the team decided to deposit gallium nitride as a series of thin layers, together which would count for thickness up to a millionth of a metre – and achieved success. Now all that was needed was to apply this technology at a larger scale.

Scaling up

By the time the team at IISc had developed the technology to manufacture gallium nitride laced chips in the country, GaN products were already trickling into the market. For the common people, one of the major applications that we see every day is the stepping down of DC voltages powering smartphones and laptops. Another use-case seeing a rise in popularity is that of charging electric vehicles.

Manufacturing gallium nitride devices isn’t expensive – it actually turns out to be cheaper but requires considerably greater expertise. As the next step of their project, the team has submitted a proposal to the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY). As a part of this proposal, the team of researchers has outlined a plan that will cost the country Rs. 2500 crore over five years post-approval for building the foundry. The foundry would ship gallium nitride wafers by the third year of operations. Radiofrequency transistors, a strategic product, would be manufactured from the fourth year and power electronic transistors would be ready from the fifth year onwards.

That being said, the process is still not capable of being 100% indigenous. Some machinery, along with an important raw material, trimethyl gallium, will have to be imported – but the technology to take advantage of these will not.

While we’ve explained in brief why using gallium nitride to build electronics is advantageous, there are some specific reasons why that is the case:
>Lower cost per function: GaN devices use standard silicon substrates, hence there is no cost penalty. In fact, there is no true cost difference in terms of starting material per wafer. On the other hand, for a similar current carrying capability, a GaN device is smaller than a silicon device and hence achieves a lower cost per function.
>Similar assembly costs, lower testing costs.
>Eliminates the need for a package: Due to its structure, GaN on silicon eliminates the need for a package, hence reduces cost, wastage of board space while also doing away with the need for added electrical and thermal resistance without compromising on reliability.

Plan B

While this proposal still awaits approval from MeitY, the team has already made alternate plans for potential funding. They intend to set up a company and seek investments of 300 crores to start off the factory. With the business that it will be able to satisfy at that point, it will attract more investment. With each level of complexity fulfilled at the factory, the value of the products will grow manifold. For instance, a normal silicon wafer ranges between 8,000 to 10,000, whereas adding the gallium nitride to the same wafer puts its value at 2-3 lakh. If the development of power devices is successfully done, the same wafer can be sold for more than Rs.50 lakhs. Hence, investment should be available in abundance. What we will lack in, though, is fabless chip design.

The near future

Gallium nitride fabrication units are running around the world now, with expertise from multiple universities and the industry working hand in hand with the government to create successful projects. India is too far behind on the silicon front to reasonably catch up any more. In the case of gallium nitride, the race may not be that difficult and all it would take is a few years with the right investment planned. For all we know, when India goes full electric in terms of automobiles, all the converters and other components required might be manufactured entirely on our own soil!

Arnab Mukherjee

Arnab Mukherjee

A former tech-support desk jockey, you can find this individual delving deep into all things tech, fiction and food. Calling his sense of humour merely terrible would be a much better joke than what he usually makes.