Silicon Carbide: A Wonder Material and Catalyst for Change in India’s Electronics and EV Landscape

By Pankaj Mohindroo, Chairman, India Cellular & Electronics Associations (ICEA)

0
113

History remembers the ‘Green Revolution’ as a significant turning point in India’s agrarian landscape. It was during the 1960s and 70s that India dramatically increased its food production through the introduction of high-yielding seeds and modern farming techniques. This transformative era catapulted us towards food security. Today, we stand on the brink of another equally transformative revolution, not in the fields of agriculture, but in the vibrant corridors of our electronics and Electric Vehicle (EV) and EV charging industry. Silicon Carbide (SiC) is poised to become the torchbearer of this imminent revolution.

Silicon has been the heart of the electronics industry for decades. It’s the material used in creating semiconductors – the foundation of our modern world. Every electronic device, from the humble calculator to the most sophisticated computer, relies on them. This includes mobile phones that we use for almost everything: ordering groceries, making payments, connecting with loved ones, and entertainment.

However, we are now witnessing a paradigm shift in this domain in some verticals, with Silicon Carbide emerging as a potent alternative to silicon. Known as carborundum, SiC boasts an impressive hardness of around 9.5 on the Mohs scale, just behind diamonds. While SiC was first synthesized in 1891 by Edward Goodrich Acheson, its natural variant, known as moissanite is found in certain meteorites, is a rare entity. Given its scarcity in nature, the SiC used today is predominantly synthetic. SiC surpasses its silicon counterpart in several aspects – it has a greater power handling capacity and maintains consistent performance even at extremely elevated temperatures. This enhances the longevity and reliability of devices that use SiC, making it akin to a supercharged version of silicon.

Beyond its role in the electronics industry, SiC’s high thermal conductivity and hardness make it a robust choice for heat-intensive processes in industries such as foundries, steel, and ceramics. Its resistance to high temperatures and chemical reactions also enhances tool life and efficiency. Additionally, due to its lightweight and high strength, SiC is gaining traction in vehicle armor applications, further highlighting its wide-ranging potential.

The unique material characteristics of SiC are decoding system level advantages in high power device applications. SiC boasts superior thermal stability, reduced parasitic capacitance, and a power density and efficiency that surpasses that of Silicon. Importantly, SiC operates reliably at intrinsic temperatures as high as 900°C, significantly exceeding Silicon’s limit of 150°C. Its wide band gap, high electron mobility, and impressive thermal conductivity facilitate rapid and efficient charge transfer during switching operations. The result is less power loss, heightened efficiency, and the capability to operate at high frequencies leading to significant reduction in device size and system cost, along with faster application speeds. These characteristics allow higher charging voltages, which translate into lower currents, thus minimizing heat generation primarily caused by current.

SiC is synchronizing rapidly with nearly all high-power applications like Electric and Hybrid Vehicles, traction inverters for EVs, Solar Cells, AC-DC, DC-DC charging and bidirectional power capabilities, even for high power ranging from Kilowatt (KW) to Megawatt (MW). Moreover, SiC’s potential in EV charging infrastructure stands out, with high voltage SiC devices enabling hyper charging stations of 500KW to 1MW. This capability dramatically reduces charging times to 5-20 minutes, easing congestion and lowering infrastructure costs at charging stations. Furthermore, SiC’s reduced heat generation allows for sustained high-power charging at high frequencies, making fast charging in very less time a reality.

The mass production in SiC is helping to overcome technical barriers that come with any new technology, leading to better accuracy and reduced costs. There’s a trend in the SiC manufacturing world towards the use of larger, 8-inch wafers instead of the traditional 6-inch ones, a change that’s making production more cost-effective. Plus, SiC technology requires fewer mask sets — tools used in manufacturing — compared to silicon, making it an even more affordable and practical choice. Furthermore, SiC’s ability to maintain stable performance at high temperatures eliminates the need for liquid cooling systems, leading to additional savings in cost, energy use, volume, and weight, as well as simplifying installation and maintenance.

India provides an ideal ecosystem for SiC manufacturing, owing to its rich reservoir of talented engineers and scientists, a rapidly expanding electronics, EV and EV Charging market, and a progressive government that ardently supports manufacturing initiatives. Our strategic geographical location, serving as a bridge between the technologically progressive markets of the East and the West, further enhances India’s allure as a potential hub for SiC production.

By leveraging the potential of SiC, India can elevate its semiconductor manufacturing capabilities, a critical component in the electronics industry. This shift could minimize our reliance on semiconductor imports, effectively positioning India as a formidable player in the global electronics arena. The ripple effect of this transition would also stimulate job creation and catalyse economic growth.

Furthermore, India’s dedication to bolstering its electronics sector is reflected in the ambitious goals set for its electronics production. The country aspires to reach an electronics production worth USD 300 bn by 2025-26, with an eye towards a staggering USD 1.2 tn by 2032. Undoubtedly, Silicon Carbide will play a significant role in these ambitious plans.

The government’s commitment to this vision is exemplified by the India Semiconductor Mission (ISM), an initiative designed to build a vibrant semiconductor and display ecosystem and enable India’s emergence as a global electronics hub. 

Under the ISM, the Indian government has breathed new life into the USD 10 bn Semicon India Program, an initiative that aims to attract businesses into setting up chip manufacturing and design facilities including compound semiconductors on Indian soil. A revamped incentive structure now sees the government pledging to cover up to 50% of project costs across technology nodes, coupled with additional support for infrastructure and research & development. 

In light of recent geopolitical dynamics, export controls on China have been intensified, specifically within the semiconductor industry. This strategic move has dealt a substantial blow to China’s semiconductor sector by limiting its access to equipment, services, and support from suppliers based in the US or its allied nations.

The prevailing geopolitical climate plays into India’s hands, as it has the potential to draw in global firms looking to diversify their manufacturing operations away from China. The proactive initiatives of the Government of India including the appealing incentives render India as an attractive proposition for global semiconductor companies. This environment could catalyse an influx of investments into India’s semiconductor industry, further solidifying its standing in the global electronics industry.

Presently, Wolfspeed (formerly known as Cree), Infineon, and STMicroelectronics are at the forefront of SiC manufacturing on a global scale. For India to join these ranks, it needs to nurture domestic companies that can compete globally in SiC technology. Through appropriate investment, dedicated research, and supportive government policies, India can foster the growth of ‘Global Champions’ companies focusing on SiC manufacturing, IP creation, and product design and development.

This transformational journey presents challenges, including the need for substantial investment, fostering public-private partnerships, overcoming logistical hurdles, and building a skilled workforce for semiconductor manufacturing.

Silicon Carbide has the potential to effect significant changes to our electronics industry, much like the high-yield seeds of the Green Revolution did for agriculture. By embracing SiC, India can foster energy-efficient electronics, cultivate a robust domestic manufacturing industry, and compete globally.

Just as the Green Revolution reshaped India’s agricultural landscape, SiC carries the promise of revolutionising our electronics industry. As we stand at the dawn of this new era, it is incumbent upon us to seize this opportunity and ignite a new revolution in electronics. Let us sow the seeds of Silicon Carbide today, to reap the rewards of a technologically advanced future.