Gallium nitride (GaN) is poised to become a less expensive, more efficient commercial replacement for silicon in semiconductor devices, thanks to a partnership between the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) and Silicon Valley-based semiconductor start-up Qromis.
Compared with silicon, the most commonly used material for semiconductors, GaN can conduct electrons more than 1,000 times more efficiently and can be manufactured at a lower cost. However, pairing GaN with most of the cost-effective materials that can be used as substrates (the surfaces on which semiconductors are deposited in the manufacture of circuits) results in instabilities in the structural integrity of devices and/or wafers, which are thin slices of semiconductor material used as substrates in microelectronics. This has so far prohibited GaN’s widespread use.
The concept for a large-area substrate technology compatible with GaN was developed at NRL in the early 2000s. Through a series of license agreements and other transfers, the concept has been refined and commercialized into a product that could redefine the $40 billion semiconductor power market.
This T2 story began in 2009, when six patents based on the NRL innovation were licensed to a small business called AmberWave Systems Corp. In 2010, AmberWave was acquired by Micron Technology, which in 2015 spun off the NRL intellectual property into a new company (and licensee) that became Qromis.
The transfer has resulted in Qromis’ trademarked product called Qromis Substrate Technology (QST®), protected by nearly 100 patents worldwide, and has made the company a start-up to watch in the semiconductor industry. Qromis has already sold thousands of units, which will reduce the costs of a variety of commercial and military products.
Compared with silicon, the most commonly used material for semiconductors, GaN can conduct electrons more than 1,000 times more efficiently and can be manufactured at a lower cost.
Instead of manufacturing QST substrates directly, Qromis and NRL orchestrated a manufacturing sublicense to Taiwanese semiconductor foundry Vanguard International Semiconductor Corp. to produce QST substrates and GaN-on-QST epi wafers (wafers made up of crystals) exclusively for Qromis and serve as an epi wafer foundry service.
“It’s been almost the ‘holy grail’ of licenses,” said Amanda Horansky-McKinney, head of the Technology Transfer Office at NRL. “Qromis has become well positioned to do exactly what we hope our licensees will do: invest and develop an IP base supporting a competitive market position for their product, using NRL technology as the base.”
Through additional partnerships, Qromis is on the cusp of commercializing the technology for potential widespread application in the commercial electronics industry, including the world’s largest makers and users of semiconductor devices. The company is also exploring other multibillion-dollar market applications including light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and radio-frequency (RF) communications.
Commercial availability of the new technology will also support NRL’s mission by facilitating next-generation Navy systems, including air and missile defense radars, electronic warfare and radar jamming systems, and satellite applications.
Click on any images below to view larger versions and photo captions.