For Longer-Range EVs, a Cousin of Silicon Makes a Material Difference

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Car industry invests billions in silicon carbide for chips that control power, but cost challenges remain

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“EV customers are looking for a greater range, and we see silicon carbide as an essential material in the design of our power electronics,” General Motors said. Co.

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Vice President Shilpan Amin came this week after GM reached an agreement to use silicon-carbide devices made by Durham, NC-based Wolfspeed. Inc.

The big challenge now is to ensure that the battery cost savings derived from silicon carbide chips outweigh the high cost of manufacturing them. Industry observers say companies are making progress but are years away from bringing costs closer to that of silicon.

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A device based on silicon carbide could be up to five times more expensive than regular silicon, according to Claire Trodec of French research firm Yole Development. Among other issues, silicon carbide is harder and more brittle and this means that it is more difficult to polish without ruining the surface of the silicon-carbide wafer.

Wolfspeed, which this week changed its name from Cree Inc., is set to open the world’s largest silicon carbide factory early next year near Utica, NY, with a $1 billion investment. In August, it expanded a deal with Europe-based STMicroelectronics. NV under which it will supply silicon carbide wafers worth more than $800 million over the next several years.

The US and China are competing for leadership in silicon-carbide technology, with Beijing hoping to avoid dependence on the West.

The government of Changsha, the capital of China’s Hunan province, began operating a $2.4 billion network of silicon carbide-related facilities in June, both for making raw materials and using it in electronic components.

Taiwan-based Foxconn Technology Grouphandjob

Apple, which assembles iPhones, bought a plant in August that is expected to make six-inch silicon carbide wafers. The move is part of the company’s effort to establish a base in auto technologies as it seeks to become a contract manufacturer of EVs for global brands. Last week, Foxconn agreed to buy Lordstown Motors’ Ohio factory Corporation

and plans to build vehicles for electric-truck startups and other customers.

Companies have long known how to make silicon carbide by combining silicon and carbon in a furnace, and the material has various industrial uses. Just like silicon, silicon carbide is a semiconductor, which means that its properties lie between a material like copper that conducts electricity and an insulator like rubber that does not.

Silicon carbide and other materials known as third-generation semiconductors are closer to the insulator side, allowing them to operate at higher voltages and temperatures.

Some types of chips, such as the microprocessors that run smartphones, are usually not required to operate under extreme conditions, so conventional silicon is used. But when chips are controlling electric current, silicon carbide’s advantages matter—particularly in an electric vehicle’s inverter, which converts the direct current generated by an EV’s battery into the alternating current that powers a motor. Gives power and turns the wheels.

When silicon carbide chips are used, less energy is expended in the inverter, which can make the car lighter and provide more power. Similarly, EV charging stations with silicon carbide chips could power cars faster.

Ms Trodek of Yole Development estimated that SiC-related technologies could save carmakers up to $750 in battery costs per unit, depending on the EV type.

Like many areas of EV technology, Tesla was the first to market with silicon carbide chips used in the mass-market Model 3 when it went on sale several years ago. According to the Yole development report, STMicroelectronics was Tesla’s supplier in the pioneering move.

Professor Kung-Yen Lee of National Taiwan University told an industry forum, “The SiC components used for the first time in the Tesla Model 3 produced a major improvement in their range and performance, exceeding other electric cars on the market. ” last month. “We can say that SiC propelled Tesla to fame.”

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.

BYD. such as Chinese EV manufacturers Co.

, which is partly owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc.,

have followed. BYD touts its Han electric sedan as a bargain version of the luxury EVs, going from zero to 60 mph in 3.9 seconds while costing around $30,000 to $46,000.

the White House Calls for increased investment in silicon carbide supply chain In a June report, which called the US a “global leader in SiC deployment”. This pointed to national-security applications for third-generation semiconductor materials such as SiC.

China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology included silicon carbide in its five-year strategic plan released in August, calling on companies to be prepared in case the US restricts China’s access to Western technology.

Shanghai-based SiC chip company Inventchip Co. Zhang Yongxi, its founder, said in a September forum that reducing the cost of silicon carbide so it can catch up to its more famous cousin would be a long road that would require continued investment.

“This difference may disappear in about five to 10 years,” he said.

Yang Jie [email protected] . Feather

.

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