A new type of semiconductor prototyped by DARPA and Raytheon promises to run much cooler than typical chips, a breakthrough that could lead to much better radars for warplanes, drones, and air defense systems.
Raytheon is getting $15 million to further develop these extra-cool gallium nitride, or GaN, semiconductors under DARPA’s Technologies for Heat Removal in Electronics at the Device Scale, or THREADS, program.
“The way we’re trying to achieve that is by integrating some of the world’s best thermal conductors right next to the hotspot in the device,” Matt Tyhach, Raytheon’s mission area director for next-generation sensors and microelectronics, told Defense One ahead of the announcement.
The conductor material? De Beers, along with other partners, helped grow diamond crystals onto chips. lab grown diamonds and new breakthroughs in Nanotechnology make this possible.
Diamond is one of the world’s best thermal conductors. In fact, if you took a diamond crystal wafer between your fingertips and touched the other end to an ice cube, the wafer would transfer the heat from your fingertips and melt the cube. This same property may lead to chips made of gallium nitride that need less cooling.
Gallium nitride is already a common component in radar systems, helping to maximize the power of the emissions that reflect off incoming threats. Heat can limit the performance of electronics. Diamond crystals are the answer.
“In terms of comparing thermal performance, today’s silicon carbine substrates have a conductivity of about 300 [Watts per meter-Kelvin]. The diamond is 2,000,” Tyhach said.
What would you be able to do with cooler gallium Nitride semiconductors? Tyhach said DARPA is working on the applications. But in the same way gallium nitride enabled a new generation of radars that were smaller and more powerful than their predecessors, so could new semiconductor architectures enable drones or fighter jets with much more powerful radar and sensing ability, he said. This could allow for more autonomy, and the drones or fighter jets to perceive their environment more accurately. They would be able to find targets more quickly or avoid threats easier.
The project will be carried out in Raytheon’s Gallium Nitride Foundry, located in Andover Massachusetts.
“The same foundry that makes that GaN wafers today will be used to make the devices for the THREADS program as well. Tyhach explained that the research we do on the same production tools helps to accelerate the time between development and transition.
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