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    An ascendant Infineon is poised to dominate the powertrain

    Offering silicon, SiC, gallium nitride (GaN) and innovative packaging

    May 19, 2017

    Caption: Rienhard Ploss is all smiles – with good reason. Image credit: Handelsblatt

    “Anticipated growth in sales of hybrid and electric vehicles in the next few years will spur power semiconductor sales to climb by CAGR 9.6 percent from 2015 to 2022 across all vehicles, taking Powertrain’s market share up to 54 percent of the total market, according to the report.  Discrete IGBT power transistors account for most of Powertrain power semiconductor revenue, but increased integration of discretes into modules will cause IGBT power module sales to increase at a much faster rate.”

    Surely that forecast from IHS is music to Infineon’s ears. But it’s only confirmation. Infineon’s been on it for a while.

    The German chipmaker is already a leader in automotive power semiconductors by a wide margin over fellow European chipmaker ST Microelectronics. And, if the most recent quarterly report is an early indicator, Infineon is revving its engines. Its acquisition of International Rectifier is beginning to show results and it’s shrugged off the failed attempt to acquire silicon carbide (SiC) pioneer, Wolfspeed, from Cree.

    Just last week it cranked up volume production on the next generation power component– a full-SiC module announced during PCIM 2016. That’s a leap of faith. Infineon is betting – though it’s a pretty safe bet – that despite a slowdown in overall vehicle sales, demand for plug-in hybrid and all-electric vehicles (xEV) will continue to rise. These vehicles are chock full of power electronics – most of which are currently based on silicon. However, the latest xEV designs call for advances in efficiency and power density. SiC is emerging as the material of choice to overcome the performance plateau of silicon because of its low switching losses, high temperature capability and high switching frequency.

    Said CEO Reinhard Ploss on a recent conference call with analysts, “We started sampling our first trench silicon carbide MOSFET and full silicon carbide modules to select customers last fall. Just from this first project, we see a revenue potential of a low triple-digit million euro amount over the next years. We are confident that a growing share of this potential will turn into future business. We are very much on track to bring the best silicon carbide MOSFET design to the market. This is not only what we believe, but also what we hear from our customer who have tested the samples.”

    Infineon has propelled itself to number one in automotive power semiconductors, worldwide, on the strength of a broad technology portfolio that allows customers to choose the best solution– silicon carbide, CoolMOS, or IGBT — on the high-performance to low-cost spectrum.

    The company’s power expertise in silicon, SiC and gallium nitride (GaN) is complemented by innovative packaging and gate driver solutions. Infineon is leveraging this expertise, developed over five decades of experience in both high-voltage components and automotive semiconductors to bring SiC to automobiles.

    Nevertheless, says Ploss, “Today, by far, the majority (I would say ‘by far’ means nearly complete) of market demand is on the IGBT side.”

    Helmut Gassel, chief merchandising office, expands on that: “We recorded $750 million worth of design wins in IGBTs last fiscal year. Obviously, these design wins are turning into business now. So, when you look at silicon carbide and automotive, the first applications will be on the onboard charger side, because space is at a premium there.”

    But that poses an interesting dilemma for Infineon: Its IGBT business isn’t chump change. “We are right now roughly at a triple million euro figure already growing 60% year-over-year,” says Gassel,

    Does silicon carbide pose a cannibalistic threat to the IGBT business?

    “This is a difficult one,” says Ploss, “Of course, we see a certain replacement of our IGBT business for silicon carbide.” Silicon carbide has obvious benefits but the devices are – for now – significantly more expensive than standard IGBTs.

    But Infineon’s campaign to bring silicon carbide to the automobile won’t be a walk in the park: Old competitors and new are lurking.

    ST Microelectronics CEO, Carlo Bozzotti, predicts that SiC will be an important contributor to revenues in the second half of 2017, “We see an acceleration of design wins on silicon carbide products.”

    ST Micro sees two “spearhead” applications: The inverter and the system that drives the electric motor. “And our proposition here, of course, is to start replacing IGBT with our SiC Power MOS.” ST Micro has allowed that it has scored a major automotive design win for SiC Power MOS in China

    And then there’s Rohm Semiconductor of Kyoto, Japan. At Electronica last year, Rohm demonstrated its third generation of silicon carbide (SiC) MOSFETs. Rohm claims that it was first to mass produce SiC MOSFETs in 2010, and the first – in 2012 — to mass produce full-SiC power modules that integrate power semiconductor elements composed entirely of silicon carbide. Rohm also lays claim to the first mass produced trench-type SiC MOSFETs. Compared with planar gate-type SiC MOSFETs, the new generation of SiC MOSFETs reduces ON-resistance by 50% across the entire temperature range and input capacitance by 35% in the same chip size.

    Meanwhile, there are the SiC specialists who are leapfrogging previous generations of power transistors. The aforementioned Wolfspeed recently claimed an industry first: An all-SiC 1.2kV power module that passes the harsh environment qualification test for simultaneous high-humidity, high-temperature and high-voltage conditions.

    But for now, there are few clouds on Infineon’s horizon. “I think our excellent position for high voltage devices – may it be CoolMOS, may it be silicon carbide or may it be standard IGBT — puts us into a position where we can choose either high performance or cost performance,” says Ploss,