Silicon Valley’s answer to EV question calls for less silicon

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The new materials can be expensive for automakers, but they could compensate for this by decreasing the number of batteries needed to power a car and increasing ranges.

  • By Ian King and Gabrielle Coppola / Bloomberg

As automakers strive to make electric vehicles (EVs) with longer runs and faster charge times, the chip industry has a message for them: you’re doing it wrong.

Semiconductor companies are urging electric vehicle manufacturers to move away from traditional silicon chips and embrace materials that would make vehicles more efficient, thereby helping to alleviate consumer “reach anxiety” and someday make them more efficient. refills as fast as filling a gas station.

However, there is no agreement yet on which approach to use. Silicon carbide is the precursor, with gallium nitride emerging as a key competitor.

Photo: Bloomberg

What are these new materials? Well, silicon carbide – as the name suggests – is a combination of two elements: silicon and carbon. 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 composed 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 Motor Co’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 air bags. It has become painfully apparent this year, as automakers have had to limit production and leave dealer lots empty because they can’t find enough silicon.

However, car manufacturers’ buy-in to new technologies is key to taking 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 Inc – a company that prompted the industry to adopt electric vehicles in the first place – could help spur this transition as well.

Tesla is one of the early adopters of silicon carbide chips, supplied by STMicroelectronics NV, Eloy said.

CEO Elon Musk touted the technology as a key benefit of his vehicles.

With silicon carbide, watts of power can be crammed into the battery much faster, reducing charge times, and it offers longer ranges because there is less leakage – wasted power – as a vehicle uses the energy needed to drive the motors.

Infineon Technologies AG, the largest manufacturer 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 Co (GM) uses silicon carbide devices in its Ultium EV battery platform, the basis of all of its 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 has integrated the chips into other vehicle lines.

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

However, 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.

BMW AG signed an agreement last month 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 vehicle from 11.3 hours to 4.7 hours, saving 70% energy in the process.

It could also increase the vehicle’s range by 5% and use fewer batteries.

That’s according to start-up Navitas Semiconductor Inc, which tells investors gallium nitride chips would 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 this? 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 tradeoffs. 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 in August to pay $ 415 million for GT Advanced Technologies, by acquiring its supplier of silicon carbide. This agreement allows it to secure access to the raw material.

Silicon carbide components could add an additional US $ 200 to the cost of a vehicle, according to a Cree estimate.

However, proponents of the new technology say the cost would pay off quickly, as vehicles wouldn’t need as many batteries.

This 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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