Auto makers advised to switch to new chips


As automakers scramble to make electric vehicles with longer run times and faster charge times, the chip industry has a message for them: you are wrong.

Semiconductor companies urge electric vehicle makers to move away from traditional silicon chips and embrace materials that will make cars more efficient, helping consumers relax “ / 2021 / oct / 03 / carmakers-advised-to- switch to new chips / “range anxiety” and someday make top-ups as fast as filling up a gas station. But there is no such thing as yet. Agreement on which approach to use Silicon carbide is the precursor, with gallium nitride emerging as a key competitor.

What are these new materials? Well, silicon carbide – as the name suggests – is a combination of two elements, silicon and carbon. And it does a better job as a power converter, which means chips using the material can move energy with less loss along the way. The same goes for gallium nitride, which is made up of gallium and nitrogen and – like silicon carbide – has a distinct advantage over traditional silicon. Supporters say it could cut charging time in half.

Choosing the right technology is particularly important as the automotive industry has undergone its greatest transformation in more than a century. Manufacturers around the world are rushing to ditch internal combustion engines, and even gasoline-era icons like Ford’s Mustang and GMC Hummer are getting battery-powered versions.

Along the way, chips have become more and more essential to the operation of a vehicle, ranging from powertrains to airbags. This has become painfully obvious this year, as automakers have had to limit production and leave dealer lots empty because they can’t find enough silicon. But car manufacturers’ buy-in to new technologies is essential to take electric vehicles to the next level.

“It’s a big learning curve for automakers,” said Jean-Christophe Eloy, director of Yole Developpement, a semiconductor analysis company in France. “A good battery, a good inverter, and a good electric motor don’t make you a good electric car.”

The good news, Eloy says, is that Tesla – a company that pushed the industry to adopt electric vehicles in the first place – could help spur this transition.

Tesla is one of the early adopters of silicon carbide chips, supplied by STMicroelectronics NV, Eloy said. And CEO Elon Musk has touted the technology as a key benefit of his cars.

With silicon carbide, watts of power can be squeezed into the battery much faster, thus reducing charge times. And it offers longer ranges because there is less leakage – of wasted power – as a car harnesses the energy needed to drive the engines. Infineon Technologies, the largest maker of automotive chips, expects silicon carbide to exceed more than 30% of the electric vehicle chip market by 2025.

“Silicon carbide can provide a significant benefit, literally a 5-10% improvement in range,” said Stephan Zizala, head of Infineon’s high-power automotive solutions group.

Some manufacturers are already sold on the concept. General Motors uses silicon carbide devices in its Ultium electric vehicle battery platform, the basis for all of its future electric vehicles. Toyota Motor Corp., pioneer of hybrid vehicles with the Prius, uses silicon carbide in the hydrogen-powered Toyota Mirai, and its supplier Denso Corp. integrated the chips into other vehicle lines.

Stellantis, which emerged from the merger of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and French rival PSA Group earlier this year, recently said it could use silicon carbide in power inverters that will be critical to mass production of a new generation of electric vehicles in the world.

But some companies, like GM, are hedging their bets. They are also studying gallium nitride, or GaN, for future use.

Gallium nitride is a newcomer – and it’s not yet clear what role it will play. Infineon expects it to complement other technologies. Others position it more as a rival to silicon carbide. Earlier this month, BMW signed an agreement to obtain $ 250 million worth of these chips from GaN Systems Inc.

Gallium nitride chips can cut the time it typically takes to charge a car from 11.3 hours to 4.7 hours, saving 70% energy. It could also increase the vehicle’s range by 5% and use fewer batteries. That’s according to startup Navitas Semiconductor Inc., which tells investors gallium nitride chips will account for 16% of the power semiconductor market by 2026, up from less than 1% last year.

Car manufacturers have taken years to learn about new technology. When silicon carbide was first offered to automakers over a decade ago, they dismissed it as “horribly expensive,” said Michael Duhaime, vice president of JJE North America, a Chinese manufacturer. electrical transmissions facility in Troy, Michigan.

The typical reaction at the time: “Why would I do that? It’s crazy,” he said. Now it is making its way into high end vehicles, where the cost is offset by the performance benefits.

However, there are still painful compromises. Traditional silicon-based chips are manufactured by the billions every year, and the 50 years of dominance of the technology has created a massive global infrastructure to produce it. It brought down the costs. Wafers of silicon carbide, the base material on which new chips are built, are produced by only a few companies, such as Cree Inc., in a process that remains difficult and expensive.

One obstacle is the material itself, which has to be grown from seed crystals in a chemical process. There are relatively few crystals available that will produce the required purity. Any impurity can lead to less efficient platelets and chips. Sign of the scarcity of materials, the cry rival On Semiconductor Corp. agreed to pay $ 415 million last month for GT Advanced Technologies, acquiring its silicon carbide supplier. This agreement allows it to secure access to the raw material.

Silicon carbide components could add $ 200 more to the cost of a vehicle, according to a Cree estimate. But boosters for the new technology say the cost will be recouped quickly because cars won’t need as many batteries.

And that speaks to the need for automakers to think more about the chips they use, Eloy said.

“If you want to save costs, if you want to increase the range, if you want to do all of this optimization, you have to get your hands on semiconductors,” he said.

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