Tesla and other electric vehicle companies have adopted silicon carbide chips. Will the chip industry give up silicon?

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Tencent technology news on September 6, for decades, silicon with rich reserves and easy processing has been the preferred material for chips, but the electric vehicle industry pursuing energy efficiency is weakening the dominant position of silicon materials in the chip field. Tesla, an electric vehicle manufacturer, is the catalyst for this change. It has used silicon carbide (SIC) chips in some model 3 electric vehicles, becoming the first electric vehicle company to use silicon carbide chips in mass-produced vehicles. This measure not only boosted the position of silicon carbide chips in the electric vehicle supply chain, but also had a certain impact on the whole chip industry.
Kazuhide iNO, Chief Strategic Officer of Roma semiconductor group, a Japanese chip manufacturer, said: “at present, chip manufacturers are still working together to build the silicon carbide market, but we have entered a stage of mutual competition.”
As the name suggests, silicon carbide contains silicon and carbon. Its chemical bond is stronger than silicon. It is the third hard material in the world. The processing of silicon carbide requires more advanced technology, but the stability and other characteristics of this material reduce the chip energy consumption by more than half compared with standard silicon wafer.
The heat dissipation performance of silicon carbide chip is also very good, which makes the inverter smaller. As a key component of electric vehicle, inverter can adjust motor power.
“The air drag coefficient of model 3 is as low as that of a sports car,” said Masayoshi Yamamoto, a professor at Nagoya University in Japan“ Further reducing the inverter makes the streamlined appearance design possible. ”
Tesla’s move affected the entire chip industry. In June this year, Infineon, a German chip manufacturer, launched a silicon carbide chip module for electric vehicle inverter.
A manager of Infineon said: “the time for the continuous expansion of silicon carbide chip field is obviously closer than we expected.”
Hyundai will use silicon carbide chips made by Infineon in the new generation of electric vehicles. It is said that compared with silicon chips, these chips can increase vehicle mileage by more than 5%.
In June this year, French carmaker Renault signed an agreement with Swiss Italian French semiconductor to supply silicon carbide chips from 2026. The agreement also includes the supply of chips made of gallium nitride (GAN), another alternative material for making chips.
Yole development, a market research company, predicts that the silicon carbide power chip market in 2026 will grow six times compared with 2020, reaching US $4.48 billion.
In addition, a major factor conducive to the field of silicon carbide chips is that the price gap between silicon carbide chips and silicon chips is narrowing. Masayoshi Yamamoto said that large-scale production and other factors have reduced the cost gap between the two by about twice, compared with 10 times that of the two chips five years ago. This gap is likely to narrow further as some chip suppliers begin to produce larger silicon carbide wafers.
Roma has always been a leader in the field of silicon carbide chips, and mass produced the world’s first silicon carbide transistor in 2010. Sicrystal, the German subsidiary it acquired in 2009, can produce silicon carbide wafers, which gives Roma the production capacity of the whole silicon carbide chip. Roma aims to account for 30% of the global silicon carbide chip market by 2025. The company plans to expand its production capacity by more than five times and recently opened a new production line in a factory in Fukuoka Prefecture, Japan.
Roma also said that many upcoming electric vehicles will use the company’s silicon carbide chips.
Silicon is not the first chip material. In 1947, Bell Labs pioneered the transistor, and then used germanium to make transistor chips. In the 1960s, with the development of chip industry, silicon gradually replaced germanium.
As an alternative to silicon, silicon carbide also has competitors in manufacturing chips. Gallium nitride has the potential to reduce energy consumption to about one tenth of that of silicon chips. This material is mainly used to make blue light-emitting diodes. Although gallium nitride chip has been used in charging equipment, it still needs to be used with other materials, including silicon, so its application potential has not been brought into full play.
The search for alternatives to silicon reflects that people are close to the limit in improving chip performance. To develop smaller and more powerful electronic products, we need to etch smaller circuit patterns. Now the mainstream chip manufacturing process is 5 nm. Moore’s law, which expects the transistor density on the chip to double every two years, is undergoing an unprecedented test.
The demand for energy efficiency also promotes the innovation of chip materials. Electric vehicles, data centers and other infrastructure for the digital economy are all growing. If no measures are taken to improve energy efficiency, there will be a huge power demand gap.
Lab 91, an American start-up, is a derivative of the University of Texas at Austin and is developing a technology to cover graphene on chip wafers. Early trials have been successful, and the company is negotiating with chip manufacturers to assess the feasibility of mass production of this technology. Graphene has the potential to improve chip performance in a wide range of applications from electric vehicles, LED screens to smart phone cameras and image sensors.
Diamond, known by some as the ultimate chip material, is a costly alternative that may change the rules of the game in the chip industry. Adamant Namiki precision jewel, headquartered in Tokyo, has developed the technology of producing power chips with diamonds. Theoretically, the energy consumption of diamond chips can be reduced to one 50000 times that of silicon chips. However, reducing the cost of diamond chip is a key problem. At present, its price is thousands of times that of silicon chip( (compiled by Tencent technology / Jiao Han)