The Spark

Innovating Beyond Boundaries
abstract image of a 3-d silicon cube

Unlocking the High-Voltage Silicon Carbide Advantage

By Zareh Soghomonian, Ph.D.

Imagine a material for high-power, high-temperature and high-radiation semiconductor applications that could operate at temperatures that would cause conventional silicon (Si) to break down. What if it could withstand electric fields up to 10 times higher than Si and resist radiation damage better as well? Such a material would be ideal for military and aerospace systems that require reliable performance in unforgiving environments.

This super-material is not science fiction; it’s science fact. Silicon carbide (SiC) has all these advantages over conventional Si in numerous applications. But although SiC technology is poised to be an enabling technology for a broad array of Department of Defense (DoD) applications, the current commercial market trend toward low-voltage SiC applications has starved high-voltage research and development, resulting in a growing vacuum in DoD’s capabilities. Mission-critical applications will continue to stagnate without the necessary investments to ensure that these high-power, high-density devices can be manufactured reliably and in large enough quantities to offset the front-end research investments.

Fortunately, there is a way to overcome these barriers and unlock the full potential of SiC. The solution is for the DoD to develop and implement a comprehensive SiC technology roadmap that pursues the following five key goals for technology development and application:

  1. Improve the quality and availability of SiC substrates and epitaxial layers, which are the building blocks of SiC devices. This includes developing new methods and standards for growing, processing and testing SiC materials, as well as establishing a robust supply chain and infrastructure for SiC production.
  2. Optimize the performance and reliability of essential SiC devices, such as diodes, transistors and sensors. Meeting this goal requires developing new device structures, fabrication techniques and packaging solutions that leverage the unique properties of SiC and overcome its limitations.
  3. Invest in building the advantages of SiC technology. Increasing efficiency, reducing form factor and boosting power density and throughput will multiply the application advantage for powering electronic hardware in tactical, mobile, airborne and deployed assets.
  4. Enable the integration of SiC devices into complex power systems and modules. DoD’s roadmap would prioritize developing new circuit topologies, design tools and testing methods that can be applied in the high-voltage, high-temperature and high-radiation conditions of SiC applications.
  5. Demonstrate and validate the benefits of SiC technologies in real-world scenarios and environments. To start with, this means developing and deploying SiC-based prototypes and platforms for various military and aerospace applications, such as radar, communication, propulsion and power generation.

By following this roadmap, the DoD can achieve significant improvements in the performance, efficiency, reliability and survivability of its systems and missions. For example, SiC-based power technology can reduce the size, weight and cooling requirements of modular power systems, while increasing their power density, efficiency and ruggedness. SiC-based sensors and actuators can also enable new capabilities and functionalities, such as high-temperature sensing, high-frequency switching and radiation-hardened control. SiC-based communication and radar systems can enhance the bandwidth, range and resolution of signal transmission and reception, while reducing interference and noise.

Moreover, developing these technologies will likely drive spillover effects into other domains where the federal government has an interest in advancing current capabilities:

  • Fusion energy: SiC technology holds immense promise for fusion reactors like tokamaks and stellarators, where SiC devices can enhance the performance of power supplies, magnetic field coils and diagnostics systems.
  • Scanning systems: Next-generation X-ray imaging technology can benefit from SiC technology to power applications such as non-destructive test and evaluation, elemental analysis, parts qualification and high-contrast medical imaging.
  • Environmental quality: The high-power and high-radiation potential of SiC could drive more effective and efficient plasma technologies that break down and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) found in contaminated soil.
  • Medical device miniaturization: Technology in medical applications could leverage SiC’s higher voltages and frequencies and smaller and lighter switches to reap increased power efficiency and portability.

By investing in SiC technologies, the DoD can also gain strategic and economic advantages over its adversaries, build a competitive edge in the global market and drive innovation and leadership in the field of advanced electronics. At the same time, these investments would create new opportunities and jobs for the U.S. industry and academia, and foster collaboration and partnership with our allies and other stakeholders.

SiC technologies offer a unique and promising solution to multiple current and near-future challenges facing military and aeronautical applications. By developing and implementing a comprehensive SiC technology roadmap, the DoD can harness the full potential of SiC and achieve its goals of enhancing its capabilities, its technological superiority and our national security.

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