Opportunities for Sapphire: New Applications & Markets Explained

Rubicon Technology announced the publication of Opportunities for Sapphire, a new white paper that examines markets that leverage the highly versatile material, sapphire.  Based on research from IMS Research, the paper takes an in-depth look at the demand for sapphire in key markets including LED, semiconductor and optical.  You can find the white paper on Rubicon’s new web site at http://rubicontechnology.com/resources/papers, but here’s a look at what you’ll find.

Sapphire has emerged as a versatile material in a range of industries for many varied applications.  Sapphire’s inherent physical attributes for durability, light transmission, chemical inertness and thermal insulation make it desirable for a growing list of applications in a range of markets.  The white paper examines the opportunity for the LED market in general lighting, backlighting and display and uses in industries like automotive.  It also explores sapphire applications for optical-grade sapphire windows, lenses and covers as well as semiconductor applications such as silicon-on-sapphire chips in radio frequency integrated circuits (RFICs) for RF antennas, as digitally tunable capacitors (DTCs) and power amplifiers in smart phones and other consumer devices.

According to white paper author Jamie Fox of IMS Research, high quality sapphire delivers great benefits to LED chip manufacturers gearing up for applications like LED-based general lighting.  “Every LED company we spoke to during the research for this paper purchases sapphire and benefits from the superior yields and quality,” writes Fox.  “Substrate demand in 2012 is estimated at 42 million two-inch equivalent wafers (TIE) and expected to grow to 57 million TIE in 2013 according to market research firm Displaybank.  As the lighting market grows into a more significant segment and larger, thicker wafers are utilized, sapphire demand will accelerate.”

“Opportunities for Sapphire” also discusses the role of sapphire in LED production, the emergence of the market for large diameter sapphire wafers and sapphire demand by application.

LED Sapphire Ingot Demand Forecast

LED Sapphire Demand Graphic WPPR

(source: DisplayBank)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The market has shown growing demand since 2010 with an expansion of the LED/LCD TV market and the growth of applications such as general lighting.

Green line indicates rate of growth per year

Key:  Demand in thousands of millimeters of two-inch equivalent sapphire

LTE and the Benefits of Silicon-on-Sapphire

Apple’s iPhone 5 is driving LTE use in the US.

LTE, the next generation wireless communications standard, is making headlines as adoption of mobile devices using LTE picks up.  Deloitte expects nearly 200 million subscribers to migrate to LTE devices by the end of 2013.  Silicon-on-sapphire is playing an important role in the development of devices that operate using LTE.  Peregrine Semiconductor’s Rodd Novack outlined the benefits of silicon-on-sapphire in a recent article in Compound Semiconductor Magazine.

According to Novack, LTE brings technological challenges that impact the RF front end (RFFE) components in wireless devices such as power amplifiers, filters, antennas and switches.  Silicon-on-sapphire, a specific type of silicon-on-insulator (SOI) technology, offers RFFE components scalable integration, consistent performance and the benefits of CMOS, the most widely used semiconductor technology. Silicon-on-sapphire wafers consist of the formation of a thin layer of silicon on a sapphire wafer at high temperature.  Novack says that sapphire, a near perfect insulator, eliminates nearly all of the parasitic capacitance and leakage currents.

The main challenge for the RFFE components is higher linearity.  Sapphire, as an insulating substrate, provides better isolation between circuit elements. In contrast, silicon by itself requires a capacitor to be charged and discharged with every cycle, meaning silicon behaves in a non-linear manner.  However, sapphire provides the linearity LTE needs with its insulator properties.

The RF interference is an important issue with LTE as worldwide deployment is scattered among a range of frequency bands from 699 MHz to 2690 MHz.  This is further compounded by multiple radios in today’s handsets.  As a result, users experience slower data rates and increased dropped calls.  LTE’s linearity performance requirements demand increasingly complex antenna switches which silicon-on-sapphire accommodates easily.

Sapphire improves transistor performance as well as enables high isolation between circuit elements allowing digital and analog blocks to sit next to high-power RF signals according to Novack.  It also enables integration of RF, analog, passive and digital circuitry on one die.  This enables smaller and smaller die and fewer external components.  Novack notes that a smaller switch size is “highly valued, because it can lead to a smaller overall RFFE with greater design and layout flexibility, and fewer external components.”  Eventually, it is thought that silicon on sapphire will enable to System on a Chip (SOC) configurations for smart phones and other electronic devices.

Focus on LTE

LTE (Long Term Evolution or 4G) is the next generation in wireless network technology and successor to 3G.  LTE is significant because it will provide significantly faster data rates for both uploading and downloading for mobile devices.

LTE is seen as the next advance in wireless networks as smart phones, tablets and other wireless devices require more bandwidth for faster data and content downloads. Smart phones, like the iPhone 5, are expected to drive the adoption of LTE.

For Further Reading

Compound Semiconductor Magazine, Silicon-On-Sapphire; Rising Value In Next-Generation Wireless Networks, http://www.compoundsemiconductor.net/csc/features-details/19736047/Silicon-on-sapphire;-rising-value-in-next-generation-wireless-network.html

Deloitte, A strong year for LTE adoption, http://www.deloitte.com/view/en_GX/global/industries/technology-media-telecommunications/tmt-predictions-2013/tmt-predictions-2013-telecommunications/77ca7f7d2c1eb310VgnVCM2000003356f70aRCRD.htm (link to article and video)

Peregrine Semiconductor, The History of Silicon-on-Sapphire, http://www.psemi.com/articles/History_SOS_73-0020-02.pdf