The ‘New Silicon’ That Could Drastically Cut Data Centre Power Consumption

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Gallium nitride semiconductors aim to reduce data centre and consumer electronics power consumption by 20 percent by 2025

A material called gallium nitride (GaN) could soon replace silicon in semiconductors, making data centres massively more efficient.

The material enables a much higher level of efficiency than silicon, and was the subject of a $70 million research program by the US Department of Energy in 2013.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) spinout Cambridge Electronics Inc (CEI) has now unveiled a line of GaN transistors and power electronic circuits that claim to cut energy usage in data centres, electric cars, and consumer devices by 10 to 20 percent globally by 2025.

Impact

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change electronics and to really make an impact on how energy is used in the world,” said CEI co-founder Tomás Palacios, an MIT associate professor of electrical engineering who co-invented the technology.

CEI’s GaN transistors have at least one-tenth the resistance of such silicon-based transistors, according to the company. This allows for much higher energy-efficiency. CEI is using its transistors to enable ‘power electronics’ that will make data centres less energy-intensive, electric cars cheaper and more powerful, and laptop power adapters up to one-third the size.

data centreGaN products have been kept off the market until now due to safety drawbacks and pricy manufacturing techniques. But Palacios said that he and other MIT researchers involved in the project have been able to overcome these drawbacks.

To reduce costs, the MIT researchers created new manufacturing technologies that involved switching out gold metals used in manufacturing GaN devices for metals that were compatible with silicon fabrication, and developing ways to deposit GaN on large wafers used by silicon foundries.

“Basically, we are fabricating our advanced GaN transistors and circuits in conventional silicon foundries, at the cost of silicon. The cost is the same, but the performance of the new devices is 100 times better,” Cambridge Electronics researcher Bin Lu said.

CEI’s current project involves using its GaN transistors to make laptop power adaptors that are just 1.5 cubic inches in diameter.

Palacios also sais that GaN transistors will be able to better power electronics for data centres run by Google, Amazon, and Facebook.

Currently, these data centres use about 2 percent of electricity in the United States. But GaN-based power electronics, Palacios said, could save a very significant fraction of that.

Photo courtesy of Cambridge Electronics

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