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Powering Forward: Reflections on the 10th Anniversary of the SiC MOSFET Release

Dr. John Palmour, Cree co-founder and Chief Technology Officer
Apr 07, 2021
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A professional portrait of co-founder and current CTO, Dr. John Palmour

In a position like mine, being a part of an industry-changing product release can feel like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So it’s particularly meaningful to recognize the parallels I see in where Wolfspeed is headed today by reflecting on a pivotal moment in our company’s history 10 years ago.

In 2011, after nearly two decades of R&D, Cree released the world’s first SiC MOSFET to an industry that had been skeptical it could ever be done. In the years preceding the release, the popular opinion was that SiC power transistors could never be made because there were too many material defects for it to be viable. The popular opinion was that it wasn’t possible to create a viable SiC MOSFET — that the oxide insulator on SiC could never be made reliable. While our competitors attempted to pursue other SiC devices like JFETs and BJTs to get around this issue, we dug in our heels because we knew that the MOSFET is what the customer really wanted in the end. We believed we could create the most powerful, reliable semiconductors on the market using silicon carbide.

And we did. But it took a lot of perseverance to get us there.

We explored three different crystal structures. We struggled to drive down the cost while increasing ampacity... by factors of 1000 or more! We started with a wafer the size of my pinkie nail before ultimately bringing the SiC MOSFET to market on a 3” diameter wafer. And, in true Cree form, we didn’t take a break between celebrating the release of the first-generation SiC MOSFET and jumping into work on generation two.

Those early days were not without struggles. We knew to drive industry adoption, we had to continue to reduce costs while increasing performance. But during that time, we made a lot of believers from those who said it couldn’t be done. We watched as competing companies turned away from alternative device structures and started running fast toward the MOSFET. We saw new markets and verticals open up as various industries began to realize how SiC MOSFETs could be used in a variety of applications.

But even I did not fully realize how big some of these markets would become. While we recognized how SiC MOSFETs could be pivotal in huge industrial applications, we knew that electric vehicles were a stretch. We understood the potential, but we didn’t imagine how huge the opportunity would be, and that we could to help shape the electric vehicle industry.

The launch of the Tesla Model 3 with its SiC inverter changed all that. Seeing the power density and range you could achieve with silicon carbide devices had every automotive OEM scrambling with how to utilize the technology in their own vehicles.

The excitement in the EV industry today reminds me of another pivotal time in our company’s history. I remember watching the huge waves of growth of Cree’s LED business. From when our LEDs were first introduced in the dashboard of Volkswagens in the mid-90s to the industry-wide embrace of solid-state lighting, I’ve seen explosive growth in our company before — and it’s happening again today.

What’s coming for Wolfspeed, I believe, is even more massive than the growth we experienced in years past. Explosive growth is both fun... and challenging. We need to lean on each other as we continue to move forward as industry leaders.

We were at the early stages of a once-in-a-lifetime growth curve 10 years ago... and we’re here again now. I can’t wait to see where the next 10 take us.

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