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Gallium Nitride (GaN) and Silicon Carbide (SiC): Powering the Revolution in Aircraft Electrification

Introduction

The aviation industry is undergoing a remarkable transformation towards more sustainable and technologically advanced aircraft. This shift is particularly evident in the development of future hybrid-powered aircraft and full-electric urban air vehicles (UAVs). At the heart of this revolution lies the groundbreaking potential of Gallium Nitride (GaN) and Silicon Carbide (SiC) in power electronics.

 

In today’s rapidly evolving technological landscape, power electronics play a pivotal role in a wide range of applications, from electric vehicles (EVs) to aircraft and military systems. The quest for more efficient, compact, and high-performance power electronics has led to the emergence of Gallium Nitride (GaN) and Silicon Carbide (SiC) as game-changers in this field. These advanced materials are revolutionizing power conversion and management across various industries, ushering in a new era of energy efficiency and performance.

The Drive Towards Electrification in Aircraft

As environmental concerns and technological advancements converge, the aviation industry is increasingly focused on developing aircraft with reduced emissions, improved operational efficiency, and enhanced capabilities. The electrification of aircraft is a key solution to address these challenges, and GaN and SiC are instrumental in driving this transformation.

Empowering Tomorrow: GaN Technology and Applications

The Power of GaN and SiC

GaN and SiC are wide-bandgap semiconductors that offer significant advantages over traditional silicon-based electronics. Their exceptional material properties make them the ideal choice for power electronic devices in a variety of applications. Let’s take a closer look at what makes GaN and SiC stand out.

  1. Efficiency and Sustainability: GaN and SiC power electronics are inherently efficient, contributing to reduced energy consumption and lower emissions, aligning perfectly with the sustainability goals of future aircraft. This efficiency boost is particularly crucial in electric vehicles, where energy conservation is paramount for extended range and reduced emissions.
  2. Weight and Space Savings: In the context of urban air vehicles and hybrid-powered aircraft, weight and space are precious commodities. GaN and SiC’s compact size and reduced weight enable these aircraft to optimize payload capacity, extend range, and enhance performance.
  3. High-Temperature Tolerance: GaN and SiC can withstand extreme temperatures, ensuring reliability and operational longevity, critical factors for future aircraft, whether they operate in urban environments or hybrid-electric configurations. This characteristic is crucial for military applications where extreme conditions are commonplace.
  4. Advanced Systems: Future electric aircraft will require advanced avionics, propulsion systems, and energy management. GaN and SiC devices are crucial for enabling these systems, contributing to faster data processing, improved power management, and extended flight duration.

Innovations in Semiconductor Technology: From Wide Bandgap to Ultrawide Bandgap Materials

Future Electric Aircraft with GaN and SiC

Future electric aircraft, including urban air vehicles, and hybrid-powered planes, are set to redefine air travel. GaN and SiC are poised to play pivotal roles in these aircraft’s development:

  1. Urban Air Vehicles (UAVs): Full-electric UAVs are becoming increasingly prevalent in urban transportation. GaN and SiC power electronics are essential for efficiently managing energy in these vehicles, ensuring reliability and safety for urban mobility.
  2. Hybrid-Powered Aircraft: Hybrid-electric and partially electrified aircraft are on the horizon. GaN and SiC-based power electronics will be key in optimizing power distribution, improving thrust, and enhancing fuel efficiency in these aircraft.
  3. Sustainability: The transition to electric aviation aligns with global sustainability objectives, reducing carbon footprints and mitigating environmental impact.

 

Military Aircrafts

Military aircraft have long relied on conventional fuel-based propulsion systems. However, the global push for reduced emissions, increased operational flexibility, and the need to adapt to evolving threat scenarios has led the military aviation sector to explore alternative power solutions. Electrification is becoming the answer.

  1. High-Temperature Operation: GaN and SiC can withstand extreme temperatures, making them well-suited for military aircraft that may operate in harsh environments. These materials ensure the reliability and longevity of critical systems.
  2. Propulsion Systems: Hybrid-electric and all-electric propulsion systems are being explored for military aircraft. GaN and SiC-based power electronics are essential for efficiently managing power in these systems, increasing thrust, and extending flight duration.
  3. Avionics and Electronics: Advanced avionics, communication systems, and electronic warfare equipment demand high-performance power electronics. GaN and SiC devices enable faster data processing and transmission while maintaining reliability.
  4. Advanced Radar and Communication Systems: GaN’s capability to operate at higher frequencies is invaluable for military radar and communication systems. It enhances situational awareness and the ability to detect and respond to threats effectively.
  5. Energy Storage: Electrified military aircraft often rely on energy storage systems, such as batteries. GaN and SiC power electronics facilitate efficient charging and discharging of these systems, optimizing energy usage.
  6. Sustainability: Military aviation’s transition to electrification aligns with global sustainability goals. Reduced fuel consumption and emissions contribute to a greener and more eco-friendly military fleet.

Airbus and STMicroelectronics collaborate on power electronics for aircraft electrification

Airbus and STMicroelectronics have joined forces to advance the research and development of power electronics, a critical component for more efficient and lightweight aircraft electrification. This collaboration capitalizes on prior assessments conducted by both companies, examining the advantages of wide bandgap semiconductor materials in the context of aircraft electrification.

Wide bandgap semiconductors like Silicon Carbide (SiC) and Gallium Nitride (GaN) offer superior electrical properties compared to traditional silicon, enabling the creation of smaller, lighter, and more efficient high-performance electronic devices. This is especially valuable for applications demanding high power, high frequency, or high-temperature operation.

The partnership’s primary focus will be on the development of SiC and GaN devices, packages, and modules tailored for Airbus’ aerospace applications. Both companies will assess these components through advanced research and testing, using demonstrators like e-motor control units, high and low voltage power converters, and wireless power transfer systems.

Sabine Klauke, Airbus Chief Technical Officer, emphasized the significance of this collaboration, stating that it will play a pivotal role in supporting Airbus’ electrification roadmap. Leveraging STMicroelectronics’ expertise in power semiconductors and wide bandgap technologies, combined with Airbus’ experience in aircraft electrification, will expedite the development of disruptive technologies vital for projects like the ZEROe roadmap and CityAirbus NextGen.

Conclusion

The future of aviation is electric, and GaN and SiC are the driving forces behind this transformation. Whether it’s enabling full-electric urban air vehicles or enhancing the efficiency of hybrid-powered aircraft, these advanced materials are revolutionizing power electronics for the aircraft of tomorrow. As research and development continue, we can anticipate even more remarkable applications of GaN and SiC in future electric aircraft, ushering in an era of sustainable, efficient, and technologically advanced aviation.

About Rajesh Uppal

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