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Thirty Years of Driving Innovation – Why Silicon Carbide?

As a science fiction fan — especially Doctor Who — I often imagine what we would do with the opportunity to go back in time, even just to the recent past. Hindsight being 20/20, we now know how technologies like cell phones, the PC revolution and web 2.0 have driven massive changes to our daily lives, altering the way we interact with others and do business. Of course, back then only a handful of innovators foresaw these possibilities and drove the technology forward to make this future possible.

Every engineer, scientist and technologist hopes to be a part of one of these massive technology revolutions – investing our time and effort in something real that changes the way the world works for the better. In 1987, the founders of Cree did just that. They placed bets on a material that they knew could create a more powerful world: silicon carbide (SiC). Scientists saw SiC’s potential to enable more efficient, reliable alternatives to silicon devices at high voltages, and Cree was the first to see and realize its commercial viability for use in power and RF semiconductors.

While silicon remains a mature, consistent and inexpensive material, our hard work has driven down SiC prices while improving performance, opening up new applications for the technology and driving demand. And most importantly, liberating our customers from the constraints of incumbent technologies.

Today, we live in an increasingly electric world that requires more efficient power conversion. There are millions of systems that require high-power operation that can benefit from SiC-based devices like electric vehicles (EVs), solar, wind, industrial, and server power. Our RF devices—made by adding a layer of gallium nitride (GaN) to SiC—can be used for applications like 4G and 5G telecom networks or advanced radar systems.

Look at the EV market as an example. According to a recent study by the Energy Innovation, it is estimated that electric vehicles will make up 65% of new vehicle sales in the U.S. by 2050. SiC components will play an important part in creating simpler, more compact and more efficient EV powertrains. Overnight charging will become a relic of the past; drivers will be able to use DC fast chargers to get approximately 300 miles of range in the time it takes to buy a snack at the charging station.

In addition to the automotive market, silicon carbide also plays a vital role in supporting other segments of the clean energy economy. As the market for battery storage continues to expand, so does the need for SiC. These materials play a role in the increased efficiency of inverters for renewable energy systems. The material helps with reducing the amount of energy lost during the conversion process for solar and wind inverter systems so that you can power more with less energy. Implementing SiC into solar inverters also decreases installation costs and the size of the inverter. SiC technology has the power to transform the future of energy storage possibilities and one day, we can expect to see a completely redesigned grid that is smaller, has a higher storage capacity and puts money back in the pocket of the consumer.

Thirty years later, that bet we placed has paid off. Our once unknown materials have more than four trillion field hours and have been commercially available for more than a decade. And we are just getting started. I’m aware that SiC-based semiconductors do not sound like the most exciting way to change the future, but like so many technological advancements, it is not about the parts we make, but rather the systems our parts make possible. Unlike the Doctor, I cannot use a T.A.R.D.I.S. to fight Daleks to change the future for the better, but I can help create a more energy-efficient future with a grid powered by cleaner sources of energy. (I’m still working on the sonic screwdriver…)

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