Alternative Substrates for LEDs – Not Ready for Prime Time

Over the past several months, there has been some industry chatter about alternative substrates for the production of LEDs.  In fact, the dialog has been more heat than light until now if you think about it in terms of a filament in an incandescent light bulb.

Large Diameter Sapphire Wafer (source: Rubicon Technology)

Sapphire substrates have been established for quite some time as the base material for LED chips.  Today, more than 80% of LEDs are based on sapphire substrates with the remainder based on SiC and a few other materials.  But the big question is whether an alternative substrate like silicon or GaN can offer the performance and cost advantages of sapphire.

Last week, market research firm Yole Developpement held a webcast, Alternative Substrates for LED Manufacturing, to examine the alternatives, the technical challenges and the conditions for success.  You can access the archive here.

According to Yole analyst Eric Virey, the principal benefit of using Si as an LED substrate would be the ability to leverage larger 8” wafers and use fully depreciated and highly automated CMOS fabs.  But “the jury is still out,” he said, “regarding a massive industry transition from sapphire to silicon.  At the end of the day, this is a cost game; manufacturing yields are a major cost contributor to LED, and they pose specific challenges to the use of silicon.”

These challenges range from a lattice mismatch and thermal expansion coefficient mismatch, to melt back and blue light absorption. Sapphire outperforms silicon on all of these factors, and each is having a negative impact on LED chip yields from silicon.  Virey commented silicon and/or GaN must meet the performance of sapphire to be successful. To date, that hasn’t happened.

In the meantime, the sapphire substrate manufacturers have made great strides to making large diameter substrates that help LED manufacturers drive down costs and increase yields to support the aggressive cost targets of SSL.  For example, Rubicon Technology has shipped more than 230,000 large diameter sapphire wafers with this number growing.

Where are efforts now? Virey mentioned during the webinar that almost all LED manufacturers are exploring alternative substrates, although most are doing so only as a defensive strategy. Toshiba and Bridgelux have been working with silicon as a substrate. In July, the companies announced Toshiba would begin silicon-based LED production in October 2012, but there has been no further word. Plessey Semiconductors and Lattice Power also announced they would enter production in 2012.

LED Magazine reports that silicon-based substrates are “no sure thing” in their latest SSL Technology Update video blog.  Associate editor Nicole Pelletier said, “A number of companies plan to ride the incumbent sapphire technology. At The LED Show back in August, LED market leader Nichia said it had investigated and dismissed the possibility of using silicon.”

At the conclusion of the webcast, Virey agreed.  “If the technology hurdles are cleared, LED on silicon will be adopted by some LED manufacturers, but not necessarily become the standard.”

For Further Reading

LED Magazine, SSL Technology Update: October 22, 2012, http://ledsmagazine.com/features/9/10/11

Yole Developpement Webinar, Alternative Substrates for LED Manufacturing, http://www.i-micronews.com/consult_webcast.asp?uid=97

Solid State Technology, Beyond sapphire: LED substrates from GaN to ZnO, SiC, and Si, http://www.electroiq.com/articles/sst/2012/05/beyond-sapphire-led-substrates-gan-zno-sic-si.html

Solid State Technology, The demise of sapphire wafers? http://www.electroiq.com/articles/sst/print/vol-55/issue-6/columns/leds/the-demise-of-sapphire-wafers.html

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About Beth

It seems like LEDs are in everything these days – backlighting everything from your mobile phone, Apple iPad and flat screen HDTV to traffic lights, light bulbs and even the kitchen sink. But, making LEDs is a complex process that begins with the creation of sapphire. Not the pretty blue gemstone, but large commercial crystals that can weigh as much as 400 lbs. Once these large sapphire crystals are grown into boules and cooled, they’re cut into cores, cut further into flat circular wafers, polished and then used to grow LEDs. About 85 percent of HB-LEDs (high brightness) are grown on sapphire. There’s not that much information out there about the process. This blog is meant to shed some light (excuse the pun) on sapphire, LEDs and the industry that is devoted to making our lives just a little brighter. In the months ahead, we’ll tackle some topics that will help you understand a little more about sapphire and LED industry. Here’s a sample of what we’ll cover in the coming months: • Growing sapphire • For a wafer, size matters • Quality - When sapphire wafers go bad • LED light bulbs • Market & myths • Interviews with industry shining stars • Reports from industry events • Current events in perspective Please join us each week to learn more about sapphire and the LED market. We look forward to seeing you.

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