Alternative Substrates – Dimming the Hype

Two-inch, Four-inch and Six-inch Sapphire Wafers

Two-inch, Four-inch and Six-inch Sapphire Wafers

Today, more than 80% of LEDs are made based on sapphire wafers.   Recently, Lux Research published a report, Dimming the Hype: GaN-on-Si Fails to Outshine Sapphire by 2020, about the state of alternative substrates.  In LED production, sapphire is used as the substrate onto which the chemicals that will become the emitting layer of the LED are deposited as a vapor.  With the LED lighting market expected to grow to $80 billion, Lux Research expects the substrate market to grow to $4 billion in 2020 making it a highly attractive market.  Lux expects sapphire to continue to dominate the substrate market.

“Silicon is already widely used for electronics, and some LED die manufacturers are hoping to take advantage of silicon substrates,” said Pallavi Madakasira, Lux Research Analyst and lead author of the Lux report.  She explained that GaN-on-Si presents technical challenges such as cracking and a lattice mismatch that reduces the performance of LEDs based on the alternative substrate.

In an interview with Compound Semiconductor, Madakasira spoke about LEDs based on silicon substrates.  She doesn’t buy the argument that GaN-on-silicon makers can save on costs.  She says that even if they use fully depreciated CMOS equipment, the process of depositing complex buffer layers onto silicon prior to GaN deposition to overcome GaN and silicon lattice mismatches, adds time and cost to a manufacturing line.

Madakasira also shared performance data in her report with Compound Semiconductor. She notes that alternative substrates haven’t provided the performance of sapphire.  According to Lux, the luminance efficacy of GaN-on-SiC LEDs is 200 Lumens per Watt with GaN-on-sapphire devices coming in at between 150 to 180 Lumens per Watt.

What does this mean?  The Lux report concluded that sapphire will remain highly competitive for the rest of the decade.  GaN-on-silicon, will snare only 10% market share while GaN-on-silicon carbide will grow to 18% of the market.   Where do they fit? Here are Lux’s conclusions:

  • Choice and cost of LEDs will determine adoption. Where GaN-on-sapphire is suited to all applications, GaN-on-bulk GaN will be relegated to niche commercial lighting and GaN-on-Si, with unproven performance, will be better suited to cost-sensitive residential applications.
  • Four-inch wafers will rule (for now), though six-inch wafers start to come into vogue. Four-inch wafers will peak at 62% market share with $2.1 billion in 2017 sales. Later, the LED industry will move towards 6” epiwafers, which will take a 35% share, equivalent to $1.4 billion, in 2020.
  • Technology will advance sapphire substrates. Sapphire substrate manufacturing technology has advanced significantly with specialists such as Rubicon and Monocrystal demonstrating substrates up to 12” in diameter. New methods like hydride vapor phase epitaxy (HVPE) will further improve throughput and cut costs, keeping sapphire highly competitive for the rest of the decade.

For Further Reading

Lux Research, Epi-Wafer Market to Grow to $4 Billion in 2020 as LED Lighting Zooms to $80 Billion,

Compound Semiconductor, Sapphire Substrates to Lead Future LED Markets,