How GaN Is Transforming 5G
By John Oncea, Editor
Gallium nitride (GaN) technology first came on the scene in the 1990s and since then has helped to push the envelope and further revolutionize technology, allowing for new, higher-demand applications. Now it’s being looked at as a way to help improve 5G network performance.
“Thanks to just a couple of elements on the periodic table, engineering may never be the same,” writes our friends at Qorvo.* “The fact is that after the introduction of gallium nitride (GaN) transistors, first demonstrated in the 1990s, RF engineering hasn't been the same and is changing by the day.”
One of the ways GaN is disrupting engineering is by helping to deliver on the promise of 5G, something that is becoming more and more important in light of the news that “5G connections are expected to double over the next two years, expedited by technological innovations and new 5G network deployments in more than 30 countries in 2023 alone,” according to GSMA Intelligence.
“Until now, 5G adoption has been driven by relatively mature markets and consumer use cases like enhanced mobile broadband, but that’s changing. We’re now entering a second wave for 5G that will see the technology engage a diverse set of new markets and audiences,” said Peter Jarich, Head of GSMA Intelligence. “The extension to new use cases and markets will challenge the mobile ecosystem to prove that 5G truly is flexible enough to meet these diverse demands in a way that’s both inclusive and innovative.”
So, can GaN come riding to the rescue? Let’s find out.
* Full disclosure: Qorvo is a partner of RF Globalnet, but we really do think of them as our friends.
The Upside of GaN
GaN is a direct bandgap semiconductor technology that is increasingly being used in power electronics as it offers:
- higher efficiency
- superior high-voltage sustainability
- reduced power consumption
- higher temperature attributes
- power-handling characteristics
These attributes allow GaN to support 5G by allowing for “faster data speeds, increased RF range, increased temperature robustness, high input power level robustness, smaller sizes, and more efficient power consumption,” according to Qorvo. “GaN enables systems to run with lower operating current and cost. System designers can design systems with fewer components, shortening design time and letting products get to market faster.”
Let’s take a look at one specific example of the mutually beneficial relationship between GaN and 5G – the development of the third-generation of wide bandgap semiconductors – courtesy of IOPScience.
To obtain the high-power signal needed to transmit increasingly accurate signals, a signal with a sufficiently high frequency will be required. This is why wide third-generation wide bandgap semiconductors, such as silicon carbide and gallium nitride possessed with the characteristics of large forbidden bandwidth, high electron saturated drift velocity, small dielectric constant, and excellent electrical conductivity, are needed and where GaN can help.
- High-pressure and radiation resistance: “GaN crystals are possessed with stronger chemical bonds, thus they are capable of withstanding electric fields numerous times higher than those of silicon devices without collapse,” writes IOPScience. “Therefore, it is possessed with the characteristic of high-pressure resistance; the bandgap width of GaN is large, electrons are not easy to be excited to the conduction band, and interference signal has little effect on the device, thus it is resistant to radiation. These characteristics permit the device to resist higher voltage to emit the 5G signals with higher power. Besides, its radiation resistance allows the signals away from other disturbing signals, keeping the 5G signals in a relatively steady circumstance, capable to transmit the information more accurately.”
- High frequency: GaN’s gat charge is relatively low meaning there is more of a chance the device can achieve the state of high frequency. GaN can work at frequencies as high as 1MHz without loss of efficiency while silicon has difficulty reaching more than 100kHz. GaN’s high-loading capacity and strong chemical bond shorten the distance between each electrical terminal as well. “Moreover,” writes IOPScience, “the bottom of the conduction band of GaN is at the Γ point, and the energy difference between it and the other energy valleys of the conduction band is large, thus it is not easy to produce inter-valley scattering, and the electron drift rate is not easy to be saturated as well.” That, coupled with the heterojunction formed by GaN and semiconductor materials such as AlGaN, forms a two-dimensional electron gas with high mobility providing faster-switching characteristics which will play a significant role in 5G application for a fast calculation speed.
- High operating temperate, low energy loss: GaN has a higher operating temperature, high thermal conductivity, and excellent heat dissipation performance, all of which are conducive to its operation under high-temperature conditions. GaN’s high-pressure-bearing energy level shortens the distance between terminals making it possible to achieve lower resistance loss while decreasing resistivity. This makes it possible to lower energy consumption while emitting a higher power signal.
IOPScience concludes, “GaN has achieved unprecedented achievements in the development of these fields. It is believed that gallium nitride will play an increasingly important role in the following decades, and its application in 5G technology will become increasingly mature and common.”
There Are Downsides, Though
There are always potential downsides to new technologies and GaN is not an exception. According to AZoM.com, “One of the biggest challenges is the high cost of producing GaN devices, which makes it difficult for manufacturers to bring these products to market. GaN-based devices are still more expensive than their silicon-based counterparts.”
In addition, there is a limited supply of GaN wafers, essential for the production of GaN devices. Finally, reliability is an issue. “GaN-based devices are still relatively new, and there is a need for further research and development to ensure that they are reliable and durable over time. This is especially important for 5G networks, where uptime and reliability are of critical importance.”
Despite the pitfalls, GaN’s role in 5G’s future is inevitable. The market, driven by private and government investments, is growing. That, and GaN’s ability to aid Massive MIMO Infrastructure applications, its future role in base stations, and its ability to meet 5G’s demand for multi-gigabit speeds and ultra-low latency are benefits too good to be ignored.