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SiC is in a race to meet growing demand for new technologies – An interview with STMicroelectronics

interviewee

Riccardo Nicoloso

General Manager - New Materials and Power Solutions Division

STMicroelectronics

interviewee

Gianfranco Di Marco

Chief of staff, Marketing Communications and technical letterature Manager

STMicroelectronics

Interviewer

Poshun_CHIU-PCH_YINT

Poshun Chiu

Senior Technology & Market Analyst, Semiconductor Substrates & Materials

Interviewer

Milan_ROSINA-MRO_YINT

Milan Rosina, PhD

Principal Analyst, Power Electronics and Battery

Riccardo Nicoloso

General Manager - New Materials and Power Solutions Division

As general manager since 2019, Riccardo Nicoloso leads ST’s New Materials and Power Solutions Division, driving innovation in silicon carbide, gallium nitride and power modules, to address rising demand for more efficient solutions in automotive and industrial sectors. With over 27 years’ experience in semiconductors, Riccardo has extensive leadership spanning automotive, consumer and industrial. Starting in design, he subsequently held marketing and business roles at ST. Appointed General Manager in 2019, he brings demonstrated success growing global businesses. Passionate about STEM education, Riccardo regularly shares expertise with academic institutions and students. Born in Catania, Italy in 1967, Riccardo holds an Electronic Engineering degree from the University of Catania obtained in 1995, with further specialization in industrial electrical systems design.

Gianfranco Di Marco

Chief of staff, Marketing Communications and technical letterature Manager

As Chief of the staff, technical communication since 2018, Gianfranco Di Marco leads the marketing communication and technical literature of the ST’s Power Transistor Sub-Group for all power transistor technologies silicon and wide bandgap based to manage the rising complexity of technologies and products. With over 23 years’ experience in semiconductors, Gianfranco has extensive leadership spanning automotive, industrial, consumer and cloud infrastructure. Starting in field application engineer for sales region, he subsequently held a regional competence center for industrial at ST. Appointed technical communication manager in 2018 and chief of the staff in 2024, he brings demonstrated success growing global businesses. Passionate about STEM education, Gianfranco regularly shares expertise with academic institutions, students and public institutions. Born in Catania, Italy in 1973, Gianfranco holds an Electronic Engineering degree from the University of Catania obtained in 2000, with further specialization in industrial automation systems design.

Poshun_CHIU-PCH_YINT

Poshun Chiu

Senior Technology & Market Analyst, Semiconductor Substrates & Materials

Poshun is engaged in the development of technology and market products and is involved in custom projects. Before joining Yole Group, Poshun had 9 years’ experience in R&D and product management at Epistar (TW & CHN). He is the author or co-author of more than 10 patents in solid-state-lighting. Poshun was also engaged in the development and evaluation of novel applications of process technology and components based on relevant semiconductor material systems. Poshun received an MSc degree in microelectronics from National Cheng Kung University (TW) and an MBA from IESEG School of Management (FR).    
Milan_ROSINA-MRO_YINT

Milan Rosina, PhD

Principal Analyst, Power Electronics and Battery

He is engaged in the development of the market, technology and strategic analyses dedicated to innovative materials, devices and systems. His main areas of interest are e-mobility, renewable energy, power electronic packaging and batteries. Milan has 25 years of scientific, industrial and managerial experience involving equipment and process development, due diligence, technology and market surveys in the fields of renewable energies, electric mobility, energy storage, batteries, power electronics, thermal management, and innovative materials and devices.  He received his PhD degree from Grenoble Institute of Technology (Grenoble INP) in France. Milan Rosina previously worked for the Institute of Electrical Engineering in Slovakia, Centrotherm in Germany, Fraunhofer IWS in Germany, CEA LETI in France, and utility company ENGIE in France.

Despite the short-term deceleration in BEV segment, the shift to 800V will escalate the demand of silicon carbide. And STMicroelectronics is getting ready with 200mm fabs in Europe and China.

Several semiconductor manufacturers have recently unveiled plans to expand their silicon carbide (SiC) production capacity to meet rapidly increasing market demand.

At Yole Group, analysts see strong demand for SiC-based power devices, predominantly for electric vehicle (EV) applications, although usage is also growing in the industrial and industrial energy segments. As highlighted in the Power SiC and GaN Compound Semiconductor Market Monitor, Q2 2024 from Yole Group, the power SiC device market will reach nearly $10 billion by 2029, with automotive and mobility as well as transportation accounting for close to $8 billion.

STMicroelectronics has long been the leading player in SiC devices and remained so in 2023 with revenue of $1.14 billion (+60% vs. 2022). As the market leader, the company stands to benefit from the rapid growth in the market and has advantages over its competitors as it builds out its capacity. STMicroelectronics is developing SiC internally, including acquiring Norstel (now STMicroelectronics SiC AB) in 2019. The company aims to have over 40% of internal wafer supply, and is investing in capacity expansion to do so.

In May 2024, STMicroelectronics announced plans to build a ‘SiC campus’, an integrated SiC facility in Catania, Italy, including a new 200mm wafer fab for SiC power devices. The facility will form a SiC hub at the site, comprising SiC substrate, epitaxy, power devices, advanced packaging, testing and R&D. STMicroelectronics is also working on other two previously-announced hubs—a facility in Singapore and a joint venture with Sanan Optoelectronics in China.

Poshun Chiu, Senior Technology & Market Analyst specializing in Compound Semiconductors and Emerging Substrates and Milan Rosina, Principal Analyst, Power Electronics and Battery, both at Yole Group, spoke with Riccardo Nicoloso, General Manager of the New Materials and Power Solutions Division and Gianfranco Di Marco, Chief of Staff Technical Communications at STMicroelectronics in a wide-ranging conversation. They discussed STMicroelectronics’ strategy for the new SiC facility in Catania, its plans for technology development and whether it considers gallium nitride (GaN) as a competing material to SiC.

Discover today the interesting conversation between STMicroelectronics (“ST”) and Yole Group.

Poshun Chiu (PC): What is the vision behind the announcement of STMicroelectronics’ SiC Campus in Catania, Sicily? What can you share in terms of the roadmap, business outlook, and supply chain?

Riccardo Nicoloso (RN): The announcement to build a SiC Campus in Catania is really an important milestone for SiC for the whole power ecosystem. Catania represents the centre of ST’s power device technology, with more than 50 years of history in the main site. First bipolar, then MOSFET, IGBT, diode, as well as smart power—most of the functions are here in Catania in terms of R&D and engineering. But it is also strong on the production side – we have both a 150mm and 200mm wafer fab for silicon-based devices and 150mm wafer fab and 200mm wafer ‘pilot line’ for SiC-based devices already available here in Catania that represents the core in terms of manufacturing for all the discrete power technologies.

STMicroelectronics’ SiC Campus, world’s first fully vertically integrated SiC supply chain and manufacturing facility – Courtesy of STMicroelectronics, 2024.

Then we have another fab in Singapore working closely with Catania to serve the marketplace.

The new SiC Campus consolidates STMicroelectronics’ strategy to have the power technology center here in Catania and is also putting in place a new way to not only develop but also to manufacture SiC products. As the name suggests, the SiC Campus will be 100% dedicated to SiC technology. It is located around 1km from the main ST site, so the whole infrastructure is there—the power and gas and ample land.

The significance of this investment is that it will reinforce the manufacturing footprint, introducing the 200mm SiC substrate and epitaxy growth, 200mm SiC line with plans for 15,000 200mm wafers per week at full build out by 2033. But not only will we enlarge the SiC manufacturing footprint including advanced power module back-end and testing, we will be going to a first-of-a-kind concept from the substrate production, starting from the powder, epitaxial growth, then the front end and then complement by the back-end manufacturing and testing.

STMicroelectronics SiC AB is important because we can be independent in the production of our substrate. We have already declared a target to have internal substrate production in the 40% range and this is the first block. This will be supported by powerful front-end manufacturing with a high level of automation and additional employment of people with high level qualifications.

We will introduce the new technology as fast as we can because the market is in a race. We can count on the proximity, the experience we have in R&D and engineering, but also in industrialization. One of the important values that our customers recognize in ST is the capability we have to industrialize this technology in very high volume in a very short time.

PC: So, the 150mm fab in Catania is in production, also the one in Singapore. And then in the future, you’re going to build this new fab integrated from powder to device to power module to be functional in 2026. And then there will be another one with Sanan JV in China, but this one will be more in the timeframe of 2025?

RN: A portion of production of substrate at the SiC Campus will start this year. 2026 is more related to the date of the 200mm front end. The 200mm wafers are going to start at the beginning of next year in limited quantities on the pilot line of the main ST site. We need to migrate the process from 150mm to 200mm in volume from 2026. For the substrate, we are in advance of this target, but this is the footprint.

200mm SiC wafer – Courtesy of STMicroelectronics, 2024

We see strong demand from our customers, from the market, and for us it is important to have this capacity available.

Gianfranco Di Marco (GD): In Catania in the main site at the 150mm fab we are already running a dedicated 200mm pilot line that is an R&D line. This is not developed for high volume, but just to develop the technology because in 200mm one challenge is to work with the supplier to develop the dedicated tools. So, we are using this pilot line to develop what is needed to support the ramp-up of the SiC Campus.

This means that when the 200mm front end in the SiC Campus is available, we will be very fast in ramping up because we have already developed what we need in-house at the main site. It will be just a ‘simple’ transfer of technology.

We can say that that transition from 150mm to 200mm has already started, even if in small volumes, because we have some dedicated devices already in 200mm to develop the technology. As Ricardo said before, an important differentiating factor for this SiC Campus is that all processes are linked and close to each other on the same site.

RN: It is important to consider that today SiC has not reached the level of yield of standard power technology. Maybe we need about three to five years to reach the same level as silicon devices such as IGBT or super-junction MOSFET. The level of yield is low versus the standard silicon one because by its nature the substrate contains some defects. Improved substrate technology is directly linked to improved front end technology. The two are connected and the improvements that we expect in the next years are also linked with what we can do thanks to this cross-fertilization among the teams located in the same site that is a powerful enabler.

Automotive-grade ACEPACK DMT-32 SiC power module– Courtesy of STMicroelectronics, 2024

PC: As STMicroelectronics has announced the Sanan Opto joint venture fab in China for device manufacturers, how do you see the opportunities and challenges in China?

RN: The Catania production will serve automotive and high-end industrial customers globally, with most coming from Europe. Automotive customers are really demanding in terms of quality, in terms of the performance of the product itself, and need a robust supply chain. This is a concept the industry has discussed for more than 25 years but the real crash test was during the COVID-19 pandemic, which created a lot of challenges. So now there is strong attention from the carmakers in Europe and the US to have a fully robust and secure supply. The answer for this cluster of customers is the SiC Campus.

In China there are different challenges. China is booming for electrification, primarily in the car but also other applications—energy generation and storage, EV charging stations, cloud infrastructure, and so on—are growing so fast in China. To address this market, you need to be there with your manufacturing footprint, expertise and local relationships; otherwise, you will only have access to a limited portion of the market opportunities.

The project of the Sanan joint venture is an exclusive foundry deal. We will build the 200mm foundry together but in terms of customer technology, the only customer for this foundry is ST. So instead of competing to gain access to a local foundry in China, we have decided to build our own foundry with a local strong player.

ST is one of the most important producers of back-end technology in China. We have had a back-end plant in Shenzhen for over 30 years that produces the packaging for most of the power technology in ST. In Shenzhen we have the biggest Known Good Die (KGD) testing and current testing footprint that ST has globally.

ST’s position to address the China market is extremely strong, as we have the technology, the manufacturing footprint, the customer relationships and are well known in China for our high-quality products. The market in China for automotive—and also power and energy—is huge and ST is set-up to play an important role there.

Milan Rosina (MR): In the fab in China are you going to use 100% of the wafers from China, for example Sanan Opto also announced plans to build a material fab?

RN: The plan is to use Sanan as the main supplier. Of course, if the operation of fab for some reason that could be technical or volume-related cannot be supported, we could look to qualify another supplier, but the plan is to use 200mm substrate from Sanan. For Sanan, this joint venture represents an appealing customer for its substrates.

PC: We are also seeing the trend of pricing for silicon carbide substrates decreasing significantly. How do you see prices changing and what kind of new opportunities are you seeing for silicon carbide?

RN: The boost to the SiC market came from automotive starting with the 400V bus battery. There were many carmakers that massively used IGBT instead of SiC. But now there is a move towards 800V bus battery.

The customer base we have in China is strongly focusing on 800V, where there is preference to use SiC MOSFETs over IGBTs. The market is very demanding in terms of quality and automotive-grade devices. While it is true that there is a build-up of local manufacturing capability including ST, the market is looking for this high-quality capacity to be built. The customers in China are growing so strongly that they are now pushing out and this is creating opportunities for them in China and in European and international markets.

So automotive demand is rebounding, because most of the carmakers are moving to 800V, so there is more opportunity for SiC manufacturing capacity. Charging a car with an 800V battery is faster than charging a car with a 400V and this is very positive from a user’s perspective. If you can get the length of time it takes to charge 80% of a car from 15-30 minutes down to 7-8 minutes the driver will be quite happy. Of course, the driver doesn’t care about the voltage or technology, what they care about is if they get 20% more mileage. These are things that the driver perceives and helps to make the choice of an EV.

There are two major co-existing designs for SiC MOSFET, planar and trench. STMicroelectronics has chosen a different approach by not moving to trench but focusing on planar for the current generation, Gen 3. STMicroelectronics has also indicated it is exploring a super-junction silicon carbide MOSFET.

MR: Can you give us some insight regarding this technology development and the roadmap?

RN: Our business today is 100% on planar technology and we have plans to introduce additional steps of improvement with this technology. Currently, we are not considering trench for two main reasons.

First, planar technology still has not reached its technical limit—we still have improvements to implement. We are mainly producing Gen 3 today, even keeping the coexistence of Gen 2 technology. We will introduce Gen 4 soon and maybe another next step before going to a radical innovation concept. The second reason is because the industrialization of planar technology, while not easy, is manageable—trench technology is more complex. Trench technology is widely used for low-voltage MOSFET silicon-based devices. In terms of performance, when you compare low-voltage MOSFET planar with low-voltage MOSFET trench at 40V to 100V, the trench is small compared to the die size of the equivalent planar technology. Based on this expertise in silicon MOSFET the market chose to stay with trench for SiC. Today, if you compare the SiC trench technology of other suppliers the focus is on the trench approach, with ST focused on planar. But, from any perspective or approach you have more or less the same die size and similar performance, but you have a lot of challenges in terms of production. So why go there? This is the rationale that we have always used in our development.

Of course, there will be a time when improvements on the planar will not be possible anymore because we have reached the limit, and we know that will happen. So, we are analyzing a new concept for SiC that is like the super-junction.

GD: It is important to note that the work we are doing exploring super-junction is not something to replace planar. For us it is in addition because we see further improvements for planar. Our strategy is to add this technology in parallel to offer our customers the best technology according to which type of application and performance we are addressing.

STMicroelectronics was the first company to announce that its exploring SmartSiC from Soitec. We have seen the partnership between STMicroelectronics and Soitec as a cooperation between the two companies to validate the potential of these engineered substrates.

PC: Will the Soitec SmartSiC also be another enabler for STMicroelectronics device to improve the performance or is it another strategy to implement or to integrate the SmartSiC?

RN: SmartSiC technology allows for substrate reuse contributing to a reduction in the overall energy consumption required for SiC manufacturing. It is a technology that is tailored to substrate production optimization and our engineers are collaborating with Soitec to evaluate how SmartSiC can help optimize production processes and increase the yield and performance of our SiC devices.

PC: Can we expect to see the use of SmartSiC in the next years?

RN: The time frame is still to be completely finalized. Depending on the results and the qualification steps we would decide if implementing it in a cluster of technology, voltage or products is viable.

PC: Is STMicroelectronics interested in growing its business in voltage ratings other than 600V and 1,200V, which are still mainstream, such as 1,700V or even 3.3kV? Are there any plans to release non-standard voltage level devices, e.g., 2kV or 200V-400V?

RN: For sure this is a market area that we would like to address. We are working on device technology for voltages higher than 2kV for automotive, not for traction but for other specific applications, and for industrial applications.

The benefit of SiC is the possibility to save energy to reduce losses and engineers still need to know where. The traction inverter is where you have the biggest benefit, and then we have the onboard charger (OBC), DCDC converter, e-compressor but still with electrification. And let us not forget the hydrogen car where the electric and setup is not so different from the BEV car. You will not have the charging, the OBC and so on, but from the battery which you have to transform with the DC-DC converter or the traction inverter, the approach would be exactly the same we have today with the BEV.

With the combustion engine, every two years there was a new normal and this was pushing the engineer to redesign or rethink the engine, the strategy of control and reduce the emission. Now the focus is to reduce the losses to increase the range and reduce the charging time for your car.

PC: STMicroelectronics also has a power GaN business. What is the strategy for developing these two WBG materials? Do they compete, or are they complementary products?

RN: Gallium nitride (GaN) is a complementary technology to SiC. The mainstream use of SiC is when you have high power and you need to save energy. GaN is for compact devices where you have limited space.

The possibility of this material to work with high frequencies allows you to reduce the size of all the components that are around the passive components—transformer, capacitor, and so on. And this is different to SiC.

Customers are starting to explore the usage of GaN in automotive, mainly in the OBC or DC-DC conversion. I do not see an immediate usage because I still think that GaN needs to be confirmed as an automotive technology. There are limits today in GaN. In terms of performance, in terms of effect reduction it is fantastic, but still the semiconductor suppliers need to improve or even prove that GaN is a robust solution for the automotive industry. Once we prove that I think that the introduction of in the automotive field would be quite significant.

For the consumer, the introduction is starting to be quite significant in chargers and adapters for phones and other electronics.

So, when you need something that is compact, only GaN can give you this. So, let’s see the evolution in automotive, but GaN will not replace SiC in power applications and SiC will not replace GaN when you need very small dimensions.

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Source: www.st.com

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