This is part of IEEE Spectrum's special report: Winners & Losers VII
In March 2006, Sony dashed the hopes of gaming fans by postponing the supposedly imminent launch of its PlayStation 3 console until November. Six months later, it pushed back the launch again. Later it revealed it couldn't live up even to that promise: Although the launch went ahead in Japan and the United States, European shops got the console only in the first quarter of 2008, and Sony's shipments in the first few months were only half as big as it had intended.
What went wrong? Sony would say only that it had had trouble manufacturing a new type of semiconductor laser that emits violet light, which has waves short enough to read the densely packed data of a Blu-ray disc. However, informed observers—including Shuji Nakamura, who invented this class of laser—had no doubt that the specific problem was a lack of decent gallium nitride substrates on which to grow the laser chips.
Today, thanks in part to the recession, the supply problem has eased, but the substrates remain frustratingly expensive—up to US $5000 for a 5-centimeter piece big enough to grow 5000 laser diodes. Think of a substrate as the foundation upon which semiconductors—be they laser diodes, microprocessors, or gate arrays—are grown in layers. In architecture, a flawed foundation imperils the entire building, and that's the problem here as well. Gallium nitride substrates haven't improved substantially, either, nor has the yield of the laser chips grown on those substrates. Clearly, the company that finds a way to make better growth platforms at lower prices will not only cash in for itself but also lift the entire industry.
A lot of big materials suppliers are in the race, but a dark horse called NanoGaN seems likely to win it. The company, a spin-out from the electrical engineering department of the University of Bath, in England, can make gallium nitride substrates of high quality—and what's more, it can recycle them, saving scarce and costly gallium.
The company's founder, Wang Nang Wang, is a soft-spoken academic, but hardly the ivory-tower type. He's paid his dues in industry, serving first as a consultant, then from 1993 to 2000 as chairman and president of Taiwan's Quantum OptoTech, and finally as the cofounder of Arima Optoelectronics Corp., now listed on the Taiwan Stock Exchange.
But his greatest achievement so far came a couple of years ago in the dimly lit warrens of a crowded basement lab in one of the University of Bath's EE buildings, in the middle of a campus that sits on one of seven lovely hills overlooking the center of Bath. In an interview there, Wang says that NanoGaN's substrate will do far more than provide a more efficient platform for the growth of the 5- to 8-milliwatt, 405-nanometer-wavelength lasers used to read discs in Blu-ray players and game consoles. It should also aid the production of much more powerful 150- to 200-mW violet lasers, which the industry needs for its next challenge: to read the four pairs of layers in a 200-gigabyte high-definition DVD. Future laser printers will use violet lasers instead of today's red ones, allowing them to double the print quality to 1200 dots per inch; a blue version of the lasers will still be used in tiny, portable color projectors.
The market analysis firms Strategy Analytics, Strategies Unlimited, and Yole Développement differ widely in their estimates of the current size of the market for gallium nitride substrates, from a low of $124 million to a high of $515 million, but all three firms agree that the rate of growth will average in the double digits over the next five years. If so, the market NanoGaN will be tapping into could be worth from $172 million to $800 million by 2013.