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The Tesla Model 3 is driving the chip industry’s transition into the post-silicon age

(Credit: Tesla China)

The winds are changing in the global chip industry, and the Tesla Model 3 may very well be one of the catalysts for the impending shift. Tesla became one of the first automakers to use silicon carbide (SiC) chips in a mass-produced vehicle. And by incorporating SiC chips into the Model 3, the American automaker ended up giving the material some momentum in the EV supply chain 

Tesla’s use of silicon carbide in the Model 3 was a bold move, considering that silicon has long been the material of choice in the semiconductor industry. Since replacing germanium crystals in the 1960s, silicon has effectively ushered in a golden age of semiconductors. But today, other materials such as silicon carbide have emerged to challenge silicon for its throne. 

Silicon carbide contains silicon and carbon, and with chemical bonds that are stronger than those in plain silicon, it holds the title of the world’s third-hardest substance. As noted in a Nikkei Asia report, processing silicon carbide requires advanced technology, but its stability, among its other properties, allows chipmakers to cut energy loss by more than half compared to conventional silicon wafers. SiC chips are also good at dissipating heat, paving the way for smaller inverters. 

Masayoshi Yamamoto, a professor at Nagoya University in Japan, noted that these advantages are well represented in the Tesla Model 3’s design. “The Model 3 has an air resistance factor as low as a sports car’s. Scaling down inverters enabled its streamlined design,” Yamamoto said. 

The runaway success of the Tesla Model 3 effectively sent shockwaves in the chip industry. And these shockwaves have started to inspire a wave of commitments on silicon carbide chips. In June alone, German chipmaker Infineon Technologies unveiled an SiC module for EV inverters. Hyundai later announced that these Infineon-made SiC chips would be used in its next-generation electric cars. The South Korean automaker added that by using Infineon’s SiC chips, its EVs could see a 5% improvement in range compared to vehicles equipped with plain silicon chips. 

Kazuhide Ino, chief strategy officer at Japanese chipmaker Rohm, noted that at this stage, makers of silicon carbide chips have reached a point where they are already competing with each other. “Thus far, chipmakers have worked together to build up the silicon carbide market, but we’ve reached the stage of competing with each other,” he said. 

French market research firm Yole Developpement noted in a forecast that the market for silicon carbide chips would likely grow sixfold by 2026 compared to 2020. This should make the SiC chip segment into a $4.48 billion market. A lot of this would rely on whether production costs for SiC chips could be reduced adequately, however, as SiC chips are still more expensive than conventional silicon chips today. That being said, the gap between silicon and SiC chips has been narrowing. Five years ago, SiC chips were about 10X more expensive than traditional silicon. Today, they’re only twice as expensive. 

*Quotes courtesy of Nikkei Asia.

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The Tesla Model 3 is driving the chip industry’s transition into the post-silicon age
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