Abundant, easily processed silicon has been the material of choice for decades in the semiconductor industry, but electric vehicles are helping chip away at its dominance in the pursuit of energy efficiency. From a report: Tesla has been a catalyst for this change. The U.S. automaker became the first of its peers to use silicon carbide chips in a mass-produced car, incorporating them into some of its Model 3s. This move gave the power-saving material a boost of momentum in the EV supply chain, with ramifications for the chip industry. “Thus far, chipmakers have worked together to build up the silicon carbide market, but we’ve reached the stage of competing with each other,” said Kazuhide Ino, chief strategy officer at Japanese chipmaker Rohm. Silicon carbide, abbreviated SiC, contains silicon and carbon. With chemical bonds stronger than those in silicon, it is the world’s third-hardest substance. Processing it requires advanced technology, but the material’s stability and other properties let chipmakers cut energy loss by more than half compared with standard silicon wafers.
SiC chips also dissipate heat well, allowing for smaller inverters — a crucial EV component that regulates the flow of power to the motor. “The Model 3 has an air resistance factor as low as a sports car’s,” said Masayoshi Yamamoto, a professor at Nagoya University in Japan. “Scaling down inverters enabled its streamlined design.” Tesla’s move jolted the chip industry. In June, German chipmaker Infineon Technologies introduced an SiC module for electric vehicle inverters. “The timing of the expansion of SiC has clearly moved closer than what we had expected,” said Takemi Kouzu, manager at Infineon’s Japan unit. Hyundai Motor will use Infineon-made SiC chips in its next-generation EV. These chips are said to enable a more than 5% increase in vehicle range compared with silicon. French automaker Renault signed a deal in June with Switzerland-based STMicroelectronics for a supply of SiC chips beginning in 2026. The agreement also covers chips made with gallium nitride, another alternative material for semiconductor wafers.
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