Want to revolutionize the electronics industry, become a multimillionaire, and earn your place as an immortal in the tech pantheon? Your job is simple: Figure out a cost-effective way to make really good, reasonably large crystals of pure gallium nitride.
With such crystals as the foundation for the growth of devices made of the same material, manufacturers would have a far richer yield of the violet lasers on which the optoelectronics industry increasingly depends. For example, the short wavelengths of these lasers are needed to read the hyperfine, data-rich line that rings the discs in Blu-ray players and in the latest game machines. Better gallium nitride would also let automakers make the power-handling circuitry in their hybrid electric vehicles more efficient, improving mileage and possibly even affordability. And with a fabulously good crystal foundation, LEDs could perform better, speeding the demise of the century-old incandescent bulb.
So far, though, gallium nitride crystals of good size and archangelic purity have been beyond the grasp of all but one of the companies that have worked for years to create them. That company’s based not in Japan, Korea, or even the United States, but in Poland. Meet Ammono, the greatest success story in materials science you’ve never heard of.
The company got where it is today by bucking the common wisdom in the industry. Instead of growing crystals with vapor deposition, the approach that all the leading gallium nitride substrate manufacturers take, it grows them the way the Earth does: under high heat and pressure.
Ammono, in Warsaw, is building up its stock of superhigh-quality gallium nitride crystals measuring 2 inches (51 millimeters) at their longest dimension. In a year or so it expects to have enough to start slicing some of them, salami-style, to produce wafers that can be turned into the round substrates on which semiconductors are grown. Admittedly, 51 mm is puny—a sixth the diameter of standard silicon wafers. But this size dominates today’s market for gallium nitride substrates, which are used as the foundation for making violet lasers. Analysts’ estimates of the market vary wildly, but everybody agrees it’s upward of US $100 million and that its double-digit rate of growth won’t end anytime soon.
It gets better: If Ammono increases the crystal size to 100 mm or more, major players in the silicon industry should start knocking on the company’s door, hoping to exploit other advantages of gallium nitride besides the color of the light it emits. For instance, it conducts heat far better than silicon does. By making large substrates from gallium nitride rather than from silicon, you can provide a better foundation for the diodes and transistors that convert battery power into a form that a hybrid electric car can use. That’s because the high currents heat up the chip, and if it’s made of silicon, it’ll need a water-cooling system of its own. Chips made of gallium nitride can simply share the cooling system of the internal-combustion engine, cutting costs and increasing the energy efficiency of the car. This potential market will grow along with sales of hybrid electric vehicles; according to analyst Philippe Roussel from the French firm Yole Développement, chip production will gobble up 800 000 of these 100-mm substrates in 2015.