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The politics of silicon carbide (SiC) wafers for power chips

The fact that silicon carbide (SiC) wafers are often in the news bodes well for this wide bandgap (WBG) material’s credentials as a disruptive semiconductor technology for smaller, lighter, and more efficient power electronics devices.

Figure 1 Chipmakers like STMicroelectronics and Infineon are scrambling for wafers amid brisk demand for SiC-based power semiconductors. Source: Infineon

STMicroelectronics has announced to start the manufacturing of 200-mm SiC bulk wafers for prototyping power devices from its recently acquired facility in Norrköping, Sweden. That’s significant migration from high-volume STPOWER SiC products that ST is currently producing at two 150-mm wafer lines in its fabs in Catania, Italy and Ang Mo Kio, Singapore.

In 2019, ST completed the acquisition of Swedish SiC wafer manufacturer Norstel AB for nearly $137.5 million. While ST continued producing 150-mm bare and epitaxial SiC wafers, the deal was clearly aimed at the R&D on 200-mm production. More advanced and cost-efficient 200 mm SiC volume production would boost ST’s manufacturing of MOSFETs and diodes for automotive and industrial designs.

Still, to bolster the SiC supply chain, ST has been signing wafer supply agreements with Cree during this growth period for SiC power devices. ST has been using Cree’s 150-mm SiC bare and epitaxial wafers for power devices serving automotive and industrial applications. ST has signed a similar multi-year deal with SiCrystal to ramp up the SiC wafers supply. SiCrystal, a ROHM company based in Nürnberg, Germany, has been manufacturing SiC wafers for many years.

Figure 2 The SiC wafers are widely seen as materials to produce power semiconductors for EVs and industrial power supplies. Source: Infineon

Another chipmaker in Europe, after a botched acquisition deal for Cree’s Wolfspeed operations, Infineon Technologies, has approached the Japanese wafer manufacturer Showa Denko K.K. for SiC material and epitaxy technology. According to Peter Wafer, president of the Industrial Power Control Division at Infineon, SiC-based semiconductors are expected to grow 30% to 40% annually over the next five years.

Silicon carbide, which enables highly efficient and robust power semiconductors, is increasingly used in photovoltaic, industrial power supply, and charging infrastructure for electric vehicles (EVs). That’s mainly because SiC materials have high hardness, heat resistance, and the ability to withstand high voltages.

However, the wafers supply will be crucial in the chip industry’s transition from silicon to SiC semiconductor devices. The above wafer deals show how chipmakers are catering to this demand with both in-house and external sources to drive the economy of scale for SiC semiconductors.

Majeed Ahmad, Editor-in-Chief of EDN and Planet Analog, has covered the electronics design industry for more than two decades.

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