Don't miss bus on new semiconductors

Besides making massive investments into silica-based semiconductor fabrication, China has also been strategically active in the development of non-silica semiconductor materials, including Gallium Nitride (GaN), which is already revolutionising power electronics for cutting-edge aerospace and defence applications in the West and is set for wider use in data centres, electric vehicles and consumer devices. In fact, China's efforts in this arena have already led the US, which currently leads the world in GaN technology, to actively stop Chinese acquisitions of Western firms involved in this space.

India, which let the entire silica-based semiconductor revolution bypass it and is still struggling to get a Silicon Carbide (SiC) foundry off the ground, today has a golden opportunity to not miss the new worldwide wave of GaN semiconductor development.

In this context, reports suggesting that the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) has decided not to fund a Rs 3,000-crore expansion of an existing engineering-scale GaN foundry at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, because of the 'risk' involved in pursuing this new technology, and MeitY's desire to prioritise silica-based fabs to cater to existing civilian electronics requirements, are troubling, to say the least.

GaN's main benefit is that high-electron mobility transistors (HeMT) and devices made from it boast properties such as rapid switching and the ability to operate at very high power levels without any need for cooling. For example, GaN HeMTs can be used to create multi-functional GaN monolithic microwave integrated circuits (MMICs), which can be packaged into more efficient and versatile transmit/receive modules for active electronic scanned array radars and other solid-state electronic warfare equipment.

Moreover, legacy concerns about the reliability of GaN have been overcome by Western defence majors such as Raytheon, who are now reaping the rewards of having assiduously invested in GaN. In recent years, Raytheon has been winning key Pentagon contracts related to electronic warfare such as the 'next generation jammer', due in no small measure to its ownership of a Pentagon-accredited 'trusted foundry' that churns out GaN MMICs. This 'trusted foundry' obviates security risks related to imported GaN wafers and allows Raytheon to fashion custom-made solutions much quicker and cheaper.

Clearly, GaN has already emerged as a semiconductor material of choice for aerospace and defence devices and is no 'blue sky' idea fraught with unmeasurable risk. Especially because the IISc proposal relates to scaling up an existing GaN facility at its Centre for Nanoscience and Engineering (CeNSE), where integrated work related to GaN material growth, MMIC creation, packaging and device fabrication is already underway.

In fact, the far greater risk, given developments not just in the West but in China as well, lies in India falling behind yet again in a crucial arena of strategic electronics development and endangering its security by not funding the IISc proposal due to short-sightedness.

'Trusted foundry'

In the absence of local supply of GaN wafers, India would either have to accept a disadvantage by continuing to develop critical EW equipment using non-GaN material or would have to import wafers from GaN foundries abroad, with attendant security risks and cost penalties. Instead, the IISc proposal allows India to develop its own 'trusted foundry' as it were.

In contrast to the problems India is facing in setting up multi-billion dollar SiC semifabs, the IISc proposal can reach fruition much quicker and has the potential to generate a much bigger return on investment, given that GaN is being increasingly used for civilian applications as well. The IISc plan would also have followed a proven path adopted by China over a decade ago when it started setting up foundries for strategic non-silica semiconductor material in integrated facilities similar to CeNSE.

An example of this would be the creation of a Mercury Cadmium Telluride (HgCdTe) fab at the Shanghai Institute of Technical Physics, which used its integrated development chain to churn out high-quality infrared (IR) sensors for China's military space programme. Importantly, China has now scaled up some of these ventures for mass supply to the commoditised device market. Obviously, China seeks to do the same with GaN as well, that is, use its scale to bring down GaN fabrication costs thereby paving the way for widespread commercial use.

Like China, India also needs to first invest in setting up non-silica based integrated industrial semiconductor facilities for strategic applications with a view to scaling them up in the future. Apart from IISc's GaN foundry, India also urgently needs a HgCdTe fab for making focal point arrays that will go into indigenous Imaging IR missile-seekers. If MeitY is unable to provide the funds for IISc's GaN foundry, the Ministry of Defence should step in to do so, given its strategic importance. After all, the only way to avoid being blindsided by the future is to be a part of it.

(The writer is a New Delhi-based commentator on security and energy issues)

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