NEPP Provides Guidance on Gallium Nitride in Electronic Components
Gallium Nitride (GaN), a Wide Bandgap (WBG) semiconductor, is emerging as a promising material for electronic components in the aerospace industry. While historically semiconductor devices have been silicon-based, in recent years, devices using WBG materials such as silicon carbide and GaN have matured to a point where their performance and economic value are competitive with, or in some cases, exceed traditional silicon parts.
“This shift to GaN is game-changing,” said Jonny Pellish, NASA Electronic Parts manager and NASA Electronic Parts and Packaging (NEPP) program deputy manager. “NEPP is trying to stay ahead of the curve and give agency stakeholders the best knowledge to know how to fly GaN components reliably without mistakes or failures during integration and test and certainly not operations.”
To educate the agency on the shifting paradigm, NEPP released a Body of Knowledge (BoK) that documents the development and current status of GaN technology collected from literature and industry surveys. NEPP published “Body of Knowledge for Gallium Nitride Power Electronics” on Nov. 9, 2020. It outlines the benefits of using GaN; discusses GaN’s applications in the area of power electronics, particularly those geared for space missions. It also provides a listing of the major manufacturers and their capabilities as well as government, industry, and academic parties interested in this technology. The BoK document also addresses issues relevant to the reliability of GaN-based electronic parts and identifies limitations affecting the full utilization.
“This is rapidly-evolving technology with companies continuously developing new products,” said Kristen Boomer, electrical engineer, Glenn Research Center. “Several programs and projects — many of which are supported by NEPP — are investigating how GaN performs under space environmental conditions in comparison to traditional methods.”
Compared to silicon, GaN offers tremendous advantages, such as power capability, extreme temperature tolerance and high-frequency operation. Using GaN to make small gains at the power management level translates to significant improvements throughout the entire system. At a system level, these advantages become apparent in performance metrics such as decreased size and weight and increased power density and efficiency.
“It’s very expensive to send massive objects in orbit or fly flight hardware,” said Peter Majewicz, NEPP program manager. “We’re always looking for ways to bend the ratio to be more advantageous in order to reduce size or weight or increase power for more benefit, and that’s something GaN offers.”
GaN devices find two main areas of application — power and radio frequency. Within NASA, as missions continue to push technology boundaries, GaN technology could be applied to several areas within the Technology Taxonomy including propulsion systems, avionics, aerospace power and energy storage, communications systems, and sensors and instrumentation.
Terrestrially, the market for GaN is expanding, especially within applications such as 5G communications networks, telecommunications devices, electric utilities and electric vehicles.
“This body of knowledge is a key piece to how we inform the Safety and Mission Assurance community of testing results and any caveats we find,” said Pellish.
Once more tests on GaN are completed, the NEPP team plans to continue posting reports, along with testing guidelines and other relevant updates on the NEPP website and Electrical, Electronic and Electromechanical Parts web page.
For more information, read “Body of Knowledge for Gallium Nitride Power Electronics” or contact Pellish, Majewicz or Boomer.