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  • Review Article
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Industry perspective on power electronics for electric vehicles

Abstract

Driven by the global effort towards reduction of carbon dioxide emissions from cars, the gradual phase out of fuel cars accompanied by the rise of electric vehicles (EVs) has become a megatrend. Despite the rapid growth of electric vehicle markets worldwide, the leading manufacturers recently announced notable price reductions to compete for market shares. From the technology perspective, for fast charging and extended driving range, more electric vehicles now shift to 800-V batteries with the traction inverters based on wide-bandgap SiC, which can lead to higher efficiency and higher power densities compared with the Si counterparts. However, to further reduce the SiC substrate and epitaxy cost remains a challenge. By contrast, for the DC–DC converters and onboard chargers of electric vehicles, the power switches based on GaN enable fast switching, which can significantly reduce the module form factors. However, the high-voltage reliability concerns associated with the heteroepitaxial defects affect the widespread adoption of GaN in electric vehicles. In this Review, we present a comprehensive discussion of the state-of-the-art power electronics for electric vehicles based on Si, SiC and GaN technologies from the device to circuit and module levels. Various competing technologies are evaluated in consideration of not only efficiency but also cost and reliability, which constitute the three main pillars supporting the continuous growth of electric vehicle power electronics.

Key points

  • By increasing the electric vehicle (EV) battery voltage from 400 V to 800 V, the power densities and efficiencies of the traction drive system, including the motor and inverter, can be enhanced, and the battery charging time can be reduced.

  • Under the 800-V battery architecture, the 1,200-V SiC metal oxide semiconductor field-effect transistors are the best options for the traction inverters because of the lower switching loss, smaller form factor, higher thermal conductivity and wider bandgap for high-temperature operations. However, how to further reduce the SiC substrate and epitaxy cost remains a challenge.

  • For DC–DC converters and onboard chargers to achieve high-power densities, the switching frequency needs to be sufficiently high for reducing the capacitor and transformer sizes. In this regard, the GaN high electron mobility transistors with low Ron × Qg will be the best options. However, how to further improve the reliability by reducing the heteroepitaxial defects is critical for the widespread adoption in EVs.

  • For the EV power modules with high-power densities, the power cycling reliability relies on layout designs with low parasitics and building materials with high thermal conductivities and well-matched thermal expansions. After all, efficiency, cost and reliability are the three main pillars of EV power electronics.

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Fig. 1: Electric vehicle market and power electronics system of electric vehicles.
Fig. 2: Power devices for electric vehicles.
Fig. 3: Performance and cost comparisons for electric vehicle power devices.
Fig. 4: Circuit topologies for electric vehicle power modules.
Fig. 5: Performance and cost comparisons for electric vehicle power modules.
Fig. 6: Parasitic inductance and thermal resistance of electric vehicle power modules.

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Acknowledgements

This work was financially supported by the Hon Hai Research Institute, the National Science and Technology Council of Taiwan, under grant 112-2218-E-008-007 (Research and Development of High-voltage GaN Transistors and Their Application in Electric Vehicles), 112-2218-E-A49-017 and 112-2628-E-A49-020-MY3 and the Center for Advanced Semiconductor Technology Research from the Featured Areas Research Center Program within the framework of the Higher Education Sprout Project by the Ministry of Education in Taiwan. The authors express sincere gratitude to M. C. F. Chang, U. Mishra, E. Y. Chang, J.-I. Chyi, H. Su, B.W.-M. Che, C.-H. H, A. Chuang, D. Yeh, G. Huang, P. Chiu and Y.-C. Liu for their valuable discussions.

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Glossary

2D electron gas

(2DEG). In GaN high electron mobility transistors, 2DEG is formed at the interface between the AlGaN and GaN layers, as a result of the lattice mismatch-induced piezoelectric polarization. The 2DEG, connecting the drain and source terminals, constitutes the channel of a normally on D-mode GaN high electron mobility transistor, which can be pinched off by applying a negative threshold voltage at the gate.

Bias temperature instability

(BTI) BTI is a general reliability issue affecting Si, SiC and GaN-based devices. BTI refers to the degradation of threshold voltage over time owing to the application of gate bias at an elevated temperature.

Blocking voltage rating

When a power switch is off, the maximum continuous voltage drop across the power switch that the power switch does not breakdown is blocking voltage rating. For SiC metal oxide semiconductor field-effect transistors and Si insulated-gate bipolar transistors, the breakdown usually happens as avalanche breakdown in the n drift layer.

Conduction loss

When a power switch is on, the square of the conducting current multiplied by the on-resistance (ID2 × Ron) is the conduction loss.

Current rating

When a power switch is on, the maximum continuous current flowing through the power switch that the junction temperature of the power switch remains below its maximum rating (Tj,max) is current rating. When measuring the current rating, the case temperature (Tc) or heatsink temperature (Theatsink) is held at a specific level.

Density of interface traps

(Dit). Dit is the density of interfacial traps originating from carbon clusters and oxygen vacancies at the SiC/SiO2 interface. Dit, which is formed during the thermal oxide growth on the SiC surface, can lower the electron mobility and cause threshold voltage instabilities. Therefore, post-oxidation annealing in nitric oxide is usually needed to reduce the Dit level.

Direct bonded copper

(DBC). DBC is a critical component in a power module, consisting of a ceramic layer sandwiched between two copper plates. The ceramic layer, composed of Si3N4, AlN, Al2O3 or BeO, is for heat conduction and high-voltage isolation, whereas the copper plate is for circuit wiring and heat spreading. Semiconductor dies are attached to the top copper plate by soldering or sintering, whereas the bottom copper plate connects to the baseplate by soldering.

Freewheeling diode

(FWD). A diode antiparallel to a power switch for absorbing flyback voltage generated by an inductive load is FWD. The flyback voltage occurs when there is a sudden change in the current flowing through the inductive load.

High-temperature gate bias

(HTGB) HTGB is the accelerated lifetime test for evaluating and qualifying the gate oxide reliability of the power device. For the EV application, according to the AEC-Q101 standard, the typical testing condition includes high temperature (150 °C or 175 °C), gate stress at 100% rated VGS and duration of 1,000 h. Zero failure out of 77 samples multiplied by three lots can pass the qualification.

High-temperature reverse bias

(HTRB). HTRB is the accelerated lifetime test for evaluating and qualifying the ability to withstand off-state high drain bias of the power device. For the electric vehicle application, according to the AEC-Q101 standard, the typical testing condition includes high temperature (150 °C or 175 °C), drain stress at 100% rated blocking voltage and duration of 1,000 h. Zero failure out of 77 samples multiplied by three lots can pass the qualification.

I C,sat

The collector current of an insulated-gate bipolar transistor, at which the current starts to saturate as the VCE increases, is IC,sat. When measuring IC,sat, the VGE is biased at a specific voltage larger than the threshold voltage.

On-resistance

When a power device (SiC metal oxide semiconductor field-effect transistor or GaN high electron mobility transistor) is on, the total resistance between the drain and source terminals is the on-resistance (Ron). Specific on-resistance (Ron,sp) is the area-normalized Ron, which can be obtained by multiplying Ron with the current conducting area of the power device.

Q g

The gate charge required to fully turn on/off a power device is Qg, which takes into account the varying input capacitance and varying gate voltage during the transient time.

Switching loss

During the transient time when a power switch turns on/off, the voltage drop across the power switch decreases/increases and the current flowing through the power switch increases/decreases. The integration of the voltage waveform multiplied by the current waveform over the transient time is the turn-on/off switching loss. If the overlap between the voltage and current waveforms is significant, leading to high switching loss, the condition is called hard switching. On the contrary, if the overlap between the voltage and current waveforms is negligible, leading to low switching loss, the condition is called soft switching.

Thermal resistance

Thermal resistance multiplied by heat current (W) is equal to the temperature difference (°C) needed for the heat transfer.

Time-dependent dielectric breakdown

(TDDB). TDDB is a phenomenon that occurs in Si, SiC and GaN-based devices with time-dependent breakdown in the insulating dielectrics. TDDB refers to the gradual degradation or failure of a dielectric layer owing to the application of a constant electric field over an extended period of time.

V CE,sat

When an insulated-gate bipolar transistor is on, the collector-to-emitter voltage drop at a rated IC and a specific temperature is VCE,sat. A smaller VCE,sat means that the insulated-gate bipolar transistor has a smaller Ron. Generally, there is a trade-off between the VCE,sat and turn-off switching loss for insulated-gate bipolar transistors.

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Tu, CC., Hung, CL., Hong, KB. et al. Industry perspective on power electronics for electric vehicles. Nat Rev Electr Eng 1, 435–452 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1038/s44287-024-00055-4

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