Gallium Nitride - transforming the semiconductor industry or wedging western allies?

The race for superconductor supremacy is on, pitting East and West in a technological arms race. We take a deeper look into one semiconductor stopping international deals with allies and its potential for military applications.

Printed circuit board
Printed Circuit Board

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The world is changing, and the IC and semiconductor industry is at the forefront of that change. Global shortages, Western export controls to China, advancing military technology, and Taiwan's delicate balance only scratch the surface. When the race is on against East and West, are allies forging stronger technological ties, or do emerging cracks show that even they cannot escape the pull of semiconductor superiority?

(Fuse) – It's Monday. 8:58 am. You took the elevator to the 11th floor, scanned through to the company's door with your keycard, adjusted your standing desk, and checked your phone just before the 9 o'clock meeting. By the time you've made your first call, you'll likely have encountered thousands of Integrated Circuits.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent shortages, the impact of such tiny electronic components were hardly given a second thought. Forward to 2021 and beyond when the likes of BMW, Chevrolet, Ford, and other automakers dropped features like touchscreens, heated seats, and sat navs from new vehicles. Or, when tech companies like Apple and Nokia cut production targets. The shortages are more tangible now than ever.

So what's this have to do with Gallium Nitride (GaN)?

“We are at the dawn of a technological arms race, an arms race between people who are using technology for good and those who are using it for ill.” - Mark Goodman

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to arrive at the same summation of the state current advancements in technology as Futurist Mark Goodman. China, Russia, and the United States are all major players in accelerating technologies in a wishful zero-sum game against one another. And while the NATO alliance has work to do in shoring up tech cooperation, as the stakes increase, and the potential breakthroughs relying on such stakes (general AI, weapons tech, quantum computing, etc) grow closer to reality, we may soon see western allies hold their cards closer to hand.

Cue- Gallium Nitride...

A lot could be said about the compound: improved energy efficiency, faster speeds at lower costs, higher temperature operation, and all with a melting point low enough to begin liquifying in your hand. More interestingly, its use in 5G technology and EV autonomous driving make it among the most promising compounds in the industry. But the good stuff?

Infineon Technologies, a semiconductor manufacturer based in Neubiberg, Germany, looked to acquire U.S. based Wolfspeed for $850 million in late 2016. By 2017, the deal was blocked by the United States after a security review. The question then becomes why would Germany, a country at the center of European affairs, a G-7 member, and a trusted NATO ally, fail a security review to acquire Wolfspeed.

The Interesting Bit

As it turns out, GaN has applications far beyond EVs and cellphone towers.

Military applications.

From electronic warfare and radar systems, GaN is changing the efficacy and operating reliability of military weapons infrastructure.

“GaN is foundational to nearly all the cutting-edge defense technology that we produce,” said Colin Whelan, president of advanced technology at Raytheon Missiles & Defense.

As recent as January of this year Raytheon Technologies, a leading United States Aerospace and Defense company, was awarded for its achievements in GaN maturation for military applications by the Department of Defense. This isn't some small point. Patriot missile defense systems are deployed in several NATO countries, South Korea, and soon to be Ukraine . The Navy's SPY-6 radars and next generation of jammers: used in the south China sea. All produced by Raytheon, and all powered by GaN semiconductor technology.

Interestingly, Whelan furthered this comment by noting, “... enhancing this process, we are developing superior products for the United States and our allies with increased capabilities, from threat detection to lethality, on faster timelines.”

If the United States intends to share such advancements, then why was the deal blocked, especially when both companies develop and use GaN within their semiconductors? The answer remains unclear.

What is for sure - any powerhouse of industrial and military prowess, whether that be the United States and its allies, or Russia, China, and their own, remains unwilling to forfeit in the chip race. And as the technology improves, the stakes of edging out of that race come in an instant.

So where does this end?

The deal to acquire American semiconductor manufacturer Wolfspeed remains off the table. But the effort to invest in Europe, and vice versa, shows no signs of stopping. As recent as January of 2023, Wolfspeed announced plans to build a $2.17 billion facility in Ensdorf, Germany. The move shows that even in light of governmental restrictions, companies of allied countries remain determined to invest and drive technological advancements together.

For now, GaN will remain a crucial part of the semiconductor industry. And as it and other compounds show further promise, the chips will only get better, and risks of isolation greater. One thing remains clear- when one small compound, on one small semiconductor wafer, can dictate the distance your Tesla drives, how fast your phone operates, and success on the battlefield, the future is a very interesting place.

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