New gallium nitride (GaN) technology can help electric and hybrid-electric vehicles charge faster and drive farther

09 Nov 2020

When we create higher efficiency integrated circuits for electric and hybrid-elecric vehicle power management technology, our customers can design more efficient and affordable vehicles that reduce emissions and help create a cleaner environment.

Fueled by range anxiety and worried about finding charging stations that require lengthy stops, many drivers have hesitated to make the switch from conventional automobiles to hybrid-electric or electric (HEV/EV) vehicles.

But innovations in power management are helping to end their wait.

HEV/EVs that incorporate our company’s latest automotive-qualified gallium nitride (GaN) power-management technology will be able to charge faster and drive farther than automotive systems based on traditional silicon-based charging technology. Enabling automobile manufacturers to remove these barriers to widespread adoption of HEV/EVs is a major step toward lowering emissions that affect air quality and climate worldwide.

“Our customers are looking for ways to add more power without drastically increasing the vehicle weight or cost,” said Steve Lambouses, who leads the high-voltage power team at our company. “TI’s highly integrated GaN solution gives automotive designers the ability to develop charging systems that are more dependable, more affordable and that use power much more efficiently. That’s a real game-changer.”

A reliable power-management technology

GaN is an extremely versatile semiconductor material that can operate at high temperatures and voltages – a key consideration for power-management applications such as light-emitting diodes, solar inverters and renewable energy storage systems.  For the past decade, TI’s GaN products have been used to efficiently power a wide range of communications and industrial designs, achieving new levels of power density and efficiency with each product launch.

Now, TI brings the promise of GaN to the automotive market with the industry’s first automotive-qualified product to power on-board charging systems in electric vehicles.

For HEV/EV, TI GaN gives manufacturers advantages over traditional silicon or newer silicon-carbide (SiC) technologies, which generate significant heat during the charging process and bleed off energy while increasing charging time. The industry’s fastest integrated gate driver enables twice the power output, doubling the power density compared to silicon MOSFETs and enabling automotive designers to optimize the design of their on-board charging architecture.

“The next step in efficient power management revolves around three things,” said Ivo Marocco, who leads business development for automotive battery products at our company. “First, you need precision charging. Second, you need greater safety for the battery system. And, third, affordability is key.  Lithium-Ion batteries can make up 30% of the cost of a vehicle, and GaN-based solutions offer a much more efficient approach by reducing power losses by 50%. Our GaN technology addresses all of those issues.”

Faster, smaller, more reliable power management

From small handheld consumer devices and laptops to vast data centers, technology is increasingly dependent on power management – and electric vehicles are no exception. Earlier power-switching technology such as insulated gate bipolar transistors and metal oxide semiconductor field effect transistors have performed well over time, but designers struggled with limitations of size, heat emission, and delayed or problematic switching speeds.

All power management involves switching – flipping the current on and off. Inefficient switching causes power loss, which creates a need for bigger, heavier power supplies and longer charging times to compensate for the loss. Speedy, precise switching technology creates a more seamless and efficient flow of energy, delivering benefits that include reducing system size and cost.

“GaN’s fast switching speed increases efficiency, which in turn reduces the burden on the cooling in automotive vehicles,” Steve said. “As a result, the efficiency that GaN delivers reduces the system cost and increases overall power density as heavy magnetics around the power supply become ~60% smaller. The end result is reduced vehicle weight, which increases the vehicle range. That’s the promise of GaN-based power management systems.” 

GaN also allows HEV/EV engineers to achieve up to twice the power density of existing solutions, faster battery charging, more reliable operation and greater overall efficiency in electric vehicle on-board charging systems.

“GaN has been around a while and everyone knew of the benefits,” Ivo said. “But now we’re seeing it move from theory in the automotive world to real applications, and that’s exciting.”

TI’s highly integrated GaN solution optimizes cost and power

Our GaN innovation goes far beyond an ordinary switch. It gives customers a full set of capabilities to create a GaN-based on-board charging system that will be a significant step forward for the HEV/EV market.

By tapping into our automotive expertise, we co-packaged a TI-manufactured GaN-on-silicon FET and fast-switching, 2.2-MHz silicon gate driver to give customers an easy way to bring everything together – integrating switch, controller and protection technologies onto a single chip.

“I think of it as bringing together brains and brawn,” Steve said. “The switch is the brawn, but the intelligence provided by the integrated controller in TI’s GaN innovation enables developers to squeeze the highest performance out of our solution.”

Putting GaN to the test

Since GaN and other wideband gap transistors are different than silicon devices in construction and material, they need specially tailored testing guidelines to ensure the devices are reliable. Testing guidelines are key to increasing confidence in GaN’s reliability and to accelerating industry-wide adoption.

Our company co-founded JEDEC’s JC-70 Committee for Wide Bandgap Power Electronic Conversion Semiconductors to provide engineers useful guidance to create robust designs. The committee recently announced a new switching guideline exclusively for GaN – JEP180: Guideline for Switching Reliability Evaluation Procedures for Gallium Nitride Power Conversion Devices.

“This new guideline provides engineers a robust evaluation of switching behavior, which will further accelerate industry-wide adoption of GaN, especially in automotive and industrial markets where efficiency, power density and reliability matter the most,” said Dr. Stephanie Watts Butler, GaN technology innovation architect at our company.

Over the past decade, our in-house reliability lab has put GaN performance to the test, delivering more than 40 million hours of device reliability testing and nearly five gigawatt hours of in-application testing to ensure the long-term reliability of the device.

“GaN can be like a precision Swiss watch,” Steve said. “It can be very precisely tuned, and we know how to do that to tweak the very best performance out of it. Our testing lab gives us that.”

A cleaner, safer, smarter world of transportation

The automotive industry is seeing a rapid increase in the sale of HEV/EVs – nearly 60% year-over-year growth, with today’s 5.6 million vehicles estimated to increase to 30% of all automobile sales globally by 2025.1 The existing network of about 25,000 charging stations in the United States is expected to increase substantially, as well.

“Our GaN power management technology gives automotive design engineers and automakers the opportunity to drastically reduce vehicle charging times, increase power density, improve cost efficiencies, enhance driving range and improve reliability,” Steve said. “Barriers to adoption for HEV/EVs will be lowered and we can all move closer to a cleaner and greener planet.”

Living our passion to create a better world

Developing highly integrated GaN technology for on-board charging systems in electric and hybrid-electric vehicles is one example of how TI innovators are living our company’s passion to create a better world by making electronics more affordable through semiconductors. As each generation of innovation builds upon the last to make technology smaller, more efficient, more reliable and more affordable, new markets open and it becomes possible for semiconductors to go into electronics everywhere. At TI, we think of this as Engineering Progress. It’s what we do and have been doing for decades.