New Silicon Carbide Semiconductors Bring EV Efficiency Gains

After spending much of the 20th century languishing in development hell, electric cars have finally hit the roads in a big way. Automakers are working feverishly to improve range and recharge times to make vehicles more palatable to consumers.

With a strong base of sales and increased uncertainty about the future of fossil fuels, improvements are happening at a rapid pace. Oftentimes, change is gradual, but every so often, a brand new technology promises to bring a step change in performance. Silicon carbide (SiC) semiconductors are just such a technology, and have already begun to revolutionise the industry.

Mind The Bandgap

A graph showing the relationship between band gap and temperature for various phases of Silicon Carbide.

Traditionally, electric vehicles have relied on silicon power transistors in their construction. Having long been the most popular semiconductor material, new technological advances have opened it up to competition. Different semiconductor materials have varying properties that make them better suited for various applications, with silicon carbide being particularly attractive for high-power applications. It all comes down to the bandgap.

Electrons in a semiconductor can sit in one of two energy bands – the valence band, or the conducting band. To jump from the valence band to the conducting band, the electron needs to reach the energy level of the conducting band, jumping the band gap where no electrons can exist.┬áIn silicon, the bandgap is around 1-1.5 electron volts (eV), while in silicon carbide, the band gap of the material is on the order of 2.3-3.3 eV. This higher band gap makes the breakdown voltage of silicon carbide parts far higher, as a far stronger electric field is required to overcome the gap. Many contemporary electric cars operate with 400 V batteries, with Porsche equipping their Taycan with an 800 V system. The naturally high breakdown voltage of silicon carbide makes it highly suited to work in these applications.

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Avalanche Pulse Generator Design

avalanche-pulse-generator

This avalanche pulse generator is a great way to test your mettle as an Electronics Engineer. The challenge is to truly understand how each part of the design works. We certainly got a failing grade when first studying the schematics more than a week ago. But we’re slowly beginning to understand what’s going on under the hood.

The concept of an avalanche transistor is some wicked voodoo from the analog side of the street which leverages a transistor’s breakdown voltage to achieve a predictable result. In laymen’s terms it (mis)uses a transistor to produce a really fast pulse. The write-up linked above references several previous avalanche pulse generator designs, but this one is a bit different in how it produces about 50V from a pair of AAA batteries using a multivibrator circuit.

Even if you have no idea what’s going on here you may be interested in the last few paragraphs where the circuit is measured using a cutting-edge Teledyne LeCroy Wavemaster 820Zi-A. That’s a 20 GHz scope with a 15.3″ screen which you’ll never ever own.