Patent Lawsuit Draws Attention to Power Electronics Industry

This article is part of the TechXchange: Gallium Nitride (GaN).

What you’ll learn:

  • The importance of wide-bandgap materials like gallium nitride (GaN).
  • The nature of the EPC lawsuit filed against Innoscience.
  • Potential ramifications of the lawsuit.

Once upon a time, the power electronics industry was considered a relatively unexciting but necessary aspect of the general product manufacturing marketplace. There can be no electronics without electricity, but prior to recent developments, the last major board-level topology evolution in power was switching electronics. The digital power revolution was significant, but it wasn’t directly related to how power was converted in the circuit.

The introduction of digital power management did herald the beginning of the embedded power revolution. It fomented the creation of better, more flexible, and more efficient electronics to take advantage of the functionality and performance gains possible with digital control. This digitization of power is also arguably the last piece in the puzzle to enable a true Internet of Things (IoT), as the ability to monitor and control power consumption is fundamental to remote systems.

How Wide-Bandgap Materials Changed Everything

The evolution of and migration to more efficient, digitally enabled power electronics paved the way (in an almost prescient way) for a new power-conversion technology to take maximum advantage of the power-management technology advances to date. This new technology has arrived—it’s a materials technology that’s significantly impacting the power electronics industry. No small thing, this is the recent introduction of materials that are better at making transistors than silicon.

These new materials, silicon carbide (SiC) and gallium nitride (GaN), are changing how power electronics are made and enabling a revolution in the way electricity is used, especially in high-power systems like electric vehicles (EVs). They perform better as a semiconductor in every way when compared to silicon.

One special advantage of GaN is that it’s a piezoelectric material. Therefore, it can be switched at incredibly high frequencies, which is leading to the development of new power topologies to take advantage of those capabilities.

Power electronics based on GaN transistors can be made less than half the size, and up to twice the power level (simultaneously), than legacy silicon-based circuits. This is enabling the creation of smaller and lighter EV powertrains, solar-power inverters, RF amplifiers, and other power-hungry applications demanding the highest levels of performance and efficiency.

The ability to significantly decrease battery size or increase operational time, shrink circuit footprints, reduce thermal issues, and operate at efficiencies exceeding 90% has made GaN a major player in the future of power electronics.

GaN Legal Issues and Patents

Considering both the importance of GaN to the electronics industry and its nascent nature as an industry sector, there’s a great deal of research and development activity that leads to their proprietary and novel results. GaN is not only replacing silicon in power electronics solutions, it’s cultivating the development of new power circuits and chip topologies to take advantage of its performance.

Such technological innovations are highly prized and protected, with the situation exacerbated because of the disruptive phase of the power industry as it transitions to wide-bandgap power solutions like GaN.

The current case in point involves Efficient Power Conversion (EPC), which filed complaints in federal court and in the US International Trade Commission over one of its competitors, Innoscience Technology.

The complaint asserts that four patents of its foundational patent portfolio, covering core aspects of the design and manufacturing process of EPC’s proprietary enhancement-mode GaN power semiconductor devices, were violated by Innoscience. The patents covered developments to enable GaN-based power devices to be a mass-producible, high-volume alternative to silicon-based transistors and integrated circuits.

Based in El Segundo, Calif., EPC is a leader in GaN products and services, and Innoscience is headquartered in Guangdong, China. The complaint charges that after Innoscience recruited two EPC employees, they introduced a suite of products that are identical to EPC’s, with similar performance across key performance metrics. More recently, Innoscience has claimed that many of its products have “pin-to-pin compatibility with existing products,” including EPC’s products.

Making the Case

EPC sued Innoscience in federal court and the ITC for patent infringement, seeking damages as well as the Innoscience bar from importing related GaN products into the United States. In response, Innoscience claims the investigation and lawsuit initiated by EPC are inconsistent with the facts, and casts doubt on the company’s motivations and objectives.

Innoscience says that it’s a competition tactic aimed at undermining Innoscience’s competitive activities. The company claims that its intellectual property rights are clear, traceable and free from infringement. It stated that the company has initiated a response plan to address the investigations and lawsuits filed by EPC. Industry repercussions from the lawsuit should be generally mild for the industry and GaN supply chain, with the biggest loser potentially being whoever comes out at the bottom of this fight.

If EPC wins, Innoscience will take a major market hit and will have trouble competing in the new wide-bandgap power marketplace. If Innoscience wins, it will be able to overshadow EPC’s efforts and take away a chunk of its market share. The nature of the fight not only underscores the importance of GaN in the new power ecosystem, it also emphasizes the importance of the core technologies involved in commercializing the wide-band gap solution.

Read more articles in the TechXchange: Gallium Nitride (GaN).