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GREAT² expectations as European industry prepares leading-edge semiconductor for space

Published by Klaus Schmidt on Wed Dec 17, 2008 5:00 pm
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(ESA) – ESA is investing significant levels of funding in order to establish a European supply chain for fabrication of space-worthy telecommunications and radar devices made from a high performance semiconductor.

The supply chain will bring together leading research institutes and industrial manufacturers working together across Europe. Once completed, the supply chain will eventually allow advanced semiconductor devices to be used for terrestrial applications through to Earth orbit and beyond.


The aim of ESA’s new GaN Reliability Enhancement and Technology Transfer Initiative (GREAT²) is to enable the manufacture of high reliability, space compatible, microwave transistors and integrated circuits from gallium nitride (GaN). Many experts regard GaN as the most promising semiconductor since silicon itself, with a diverse range of terrestrial applications ranging from bigger, brighter televisions to improved performance mobile phones and wireless base stations.

However, GaN holds particular promise for the space sector. It can reliably operate at much higher voltages and temperatures than widely-used semiconductors such as silicon or gallium arsenide (GaAs), and is also inherently radiation-hard. When used to realise space-based microwave devices, GaN should enable reduction in the size and mass of cooling systems, an enhanced ability to survive the hard radiation environment of deep space and – most significantly of all – a five- to ten-fold boost in microwave output power. Broadband information handling capability and the ability to pass through the Earth’s atmosphere means that microwave signals form the backbone of space communications. Microwave signals are employed not only by telecommunication satellites but are also for spacecraft telemetry data transmission back to Earth and for radar imaging missions such as Envisat.

If Europe’s space industry is to maintain competitive then it needs guaranteed access to leading-edge GaN technology. ESA’s recently-launched GREAT² initiative is therefore designed to foster an independent GaN supply chain for space.

Illustration of GaN HEMT wafers fabricated on SiC substrates and GaN MMIC power amplifier

The project involves seven academic and industrial partners from four European countries. Some 8.6M€ of funding has been secured for the first phase of the project – focusing on device reliability – with a planned follow-on phase to concentrate on validating the manufacturing process for the special requirements of the space environment.
“GREAT² is one of the largest pure technology development programmes ever undertaken by ESA’s components division,” said Project Manager Andrew Barnes, of ESA’s Technology Directorate. “It brings together leading research institutes working in the field, an established space industrial manufacturer and a leading manufacturer of compound semiconductor devices.”

“At present many research groups in Europe are demonstrating excellent performance capability for GaN based high electron mobility transistors (HEMTs) and monolithic microwave integrated circuits (MMICs),” explained Rolf Jost of German company TESAT Spacecom, which is managing GREAT² for ESA. “However the next critical stage is to improve the reliability of GaN components in order to allow space system insertion to occur more rapidly.”

Project elements will include modelling of the underlying device physics; assessing the links between materials factors and device processing with ensuing transistor performance and reliability; space-focused enhancement and evaluation of the technology for particular issues such as radiation as well as process trials and technology transfer of the optimum approaches to a commercial manufacturing line. The plan is to have a space-compatible foundry process for fabrication of GaN HEMTs and MMICs by 2011-2012.

GREAT² is being funded through ESA’s Basic Technology Research Programme (TRP) and the German and Belgian members of the General Support Technology Programme (GSTP), with additional support coming from the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the Belgium Space Office.

The GREAT² consortium consists of the following partners:

Partner Project Responsibility
TESAT SpaceCom (D) Project management, component assessment and packaging
IMEC (B) Epitaxy growth optimisation on SiC and Si substrates
Ferdinand Braun Institute (D) Reliability optimisation, processing of discrete power transistors
Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Solid-State Physics (D) Epitaxy growth optimisation on SiC and substrates, MMIC processing
United Monolithic Semiconductors (D) Technology transfer trials, process development and validation, foundry process supplier
University of Bristol (UK) Thermal analysis
University of Rome Tor Vergata (I) Device physics modelling

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