RF GaN: a world of potential, but at a critical crossroad

An article written by Aymen Ghorbel and Ezgi Dogmus from Yole Intelligence, part of Yole Group, for EverythingRF.

Over the last two decades, RF GaN technology has evolved, initially finding its roots in defense applications and now exploring new frontiers in meeting the demands of telecom infrastructure and satellite communications. As GaN-on-SiC technology reaches maturity, it is emerging as a standard for various applications, steadily gaining market share over competing technologies such as Si LDMOS and GaAs. With a focus on power efficiency, reliability, and space optimization, GaN technology is becoming indispensable. The telecom infrastructure market is witnessing a significant shift in power amplifier (PA) requirements, paving the way for GaN-on-Si technology introduced by Infineon on an 8-inch platform in 2023. This strategic move not only intensifies competition with GaN-on-SiC but also could unlock new prospects, especially in the handset market. 

Driven by the demands of 5G telecom infrastructure and defense radar applications, the overall value of the GaN RF device market is projected to surge from US$1.4 billion to over US$2.2 billion, according to Yole Group‘s RF GaN Compound Semiconductor Monitor Q4-23 edition, exhibiting a robust compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 8.7% during the 2022-2028 period. 

While the RF GaN market may not be evolving at quite the same pace over the 2022-28 period as wideband gap (SiC and GaN) markets for power conversion applications, it remains dynamic and is transforming its supply chain. US-based MACOM, a key player in the industry, completed two significant acquisitions in 2023 — French OMMIC SAS for its GaN-on-Si technology and US-based Wolfspeed’s RF GaN-on-SiC business, a leader in the RF GaN sector. These strategic moves position MACOM to potentially emerge as one of the leaders in RF GaN. Concurrently, players such as SEDI, Qorvo, and NXP are maintaining their strong leadership in the RF GaN industry. In China, players like SICC, Sanan IC, Dynax, and CETC continue developing and addressing the local RF GaN market. Earlier in 2023, Infineon introduced the first commercial GaN-on-Si Pa technology on 8-inch wafer to the telecom infrastructure market. Other players like ST Microelectronics, UMC, and GlobalFoundries are likely to follow in the coming years.

RF GaN reaching success for several applications

Since the 1990s, the U.S. Department of Defense has recognized the superior output power and efficiency of RF GaN-on-SiC compared to materials such as InP, GaAs HBT, GaAs HEMT, and Si LDMOS. RF GaN not only offers a broader bandwidth but also facilitates a reduction in system size – two attributes highly sought after as telecom infrastructure expands its frequencies and base station models. 

The exceptional power and efficiency characteristics of RF GaN have led to its widespread adoption in defense applications, particularly in addressing thermal challenges in higher-power scenarios, such as airborne radar systems. Defense continues to stand out as one of the largest sectors in the RF GaN market. 

Airborne systems, characterized by a high device count, are expected to dominate the market, with an increase also foreseen within shipborne systems in the coming years. Beyond the borders of the United States, both Europe and China are actively cultivating their GaN ecosystems, with a specific focus on expanding deployment in military radar applications. Although the electronic warfare market remains largely concealed and shrouded in secrecy, sustained growth is assured from the ongoing demonstrations and GaN projects within this segment. GaN enjoys industry favor over alternative technologies owing to its broadband operation and enhanced reliability. Substantial growth in military satellite communication is anticipated during the period spanning 2022 to 2028. GaN devices emerge as the preferred choice for deploying Ka-band block upconverter systems, showcasing a blend of high-power output and lightweight properties. In the realms of C and X bands, the selection of GaN systems is guided by the crucial criterion of Power-Added Efficiency (PAE). 

Simultaneously, RF GaN has begun making inroads into the SatCom market, leveraging its high efficiency compared to other materials to enable smaller device sizes, thereby saving valuable space at the system level. After the telecom infrastructure and defense markets, satellite communication is the third-largest RF GaN market and is expected to reach US$270 million by 2028 with an 18% CAGR2022-2028. RF GaN power amplifiers offer higher data throughput, smaller antennas, wider bandwidth, and better efficiency. Transitioning from L/C/X-bands to Ku/Ka-bands enables higher data rates in mobile satellite communication. While traveling wave tube (TWT) technology was dominant historically, it has limitations, such as bulkiness and reliability issues. Solid state power amplifiers (SSPA) based on GaAs are gaining interest for low-power and lightweight satellite systems but have efficiency and bandwidth limitations compared to GaN. GaN PAs offer numerous advantages over GaAs SSPAs, making them attractive for various applications like GEO HTS, “New Space,” LEO, and Earth observation at higher frequencies. We are witnessing a growing focus on satellite communications, particularly due to the rising interest in the “New Space” trend. Additionally, the telecom infrastructure industry is showing increased attention to satellite communication, especially with Space X’s plans to provide 5G coverage through satellite technology. This approach raises the possibility of a world without areas lacking reliable phone network coverage. RF GaN technology can take this opportunity to increase its presence in the market…

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