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From cryptocurrency to EVs, ‘green’ chips all the rage

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cryptocurrencies representations. AFP

From cryptocurrency to EVs, ‘green’ chips all the rage

“Green” chips, or low-power semiconductors, have become bestsellers among both crypto miners and electric vehicle (EV) makers looking to increase their profitability and driving range.

According to industry sources on December 20, major chipmakers including Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co Ltd (TSMC) and Samsung Electronics are producing advanced, low-power chips at full throttle, as miners of cryptocurrencies desperately search for chips that consume less electricity.

Hana Financial Investment analyst Claire Kim said: “Conventional chips can’t offer crypto miners the performance and power efficiency they need.

“Crypto miners need five-nanometre [nm] chips for their operations, allowing TSMC and Samsung Electronics to maintain a high level of operation rate at their advanced chip production lines.

“Though it was only last year when TSMC began the mass production of 5nm chips, they account for 18 per cent of the firm’s sales. The figure will only rise as clients are placing more orders.”

Five nanometres refers to the distance between two transistors on a 5nm chip, with 1nm being one-billionth of a meter. The smaller the distance, the more transistors can fit inside and the faster the chip becomes.

The shorter the distance also means less power is required to reach all the billions of transistors packed in a chip. Simply put, 5nm chips are both faster and consume less electricity than more typical 7nm chips.

Samsung Electronics and TSMC are in a tight race to further push the limits of chips. Samsung Electronics announced in October that it will mass-produce 3nm chips in the first half of next year, which would be at least one month earlier than TSMC’s mass production timeline scheduled for July.

To further catch up with its arch-rival TSMC, Samsung Electronics aims to produce the 3nm chips with a breakthrough technology called gate-all-around (GAA), which would allow up to a 35 per cent decrease in area, 30 per cent higher performance or 50 per cent lower power consumption compared to 5nm chips.

TSMC is expected to apply GAA technologies starting with 2nm chips, which are set for mass production in 2025.

Meanwhile, in the EV market, demand for green chips is spiking, as conventional chips eat up too much electricity and shave kilometres off the driving range.

Inside an EV, especially one capable of self-driving, all sorts of chips – more than 2,000 – are installed, which is far greater than the 200 to 300 chips used for an internal combustion engine vehicle.

Among them, power chips are perhaps the most important chips inside EVs. Their role is to minimise power loss as batteries supply and distribute electricity throughout the vehicle.

Typical power chips are made of silicon, but market leader Tesla is leading the market trend once again with the wholly new silicon carbide (SiC) power chips.

In recent years, Tesla has ditched conventional silicon-based power chips and switched to SiC power chips. Since 2017, Tesla has installed SiC power chips inside the inverters of the Tesla Model 3 series, which resulted in a significant performance improvement.

Shinhan Investment analyst Ko Yeong-min said: “Tesla was the first in the industry to install SiC power chips inside the inverters of EVs. With SiC power chips, Tesla’s inverters became 10 times more efficient, 43 per cent smaller and 6kg lighter compared to conventional inverters.

“Benchmarking Tesla, automakers including Hyundai Motor, BYD and Toyota are opting for SiC power chips.”

Inverters are key devices that control the rotating speed of the motors of EVs. When batteries supply high-voltage electricity, inverters convert that and feed it to the motors. SiC power chips help inverters to convert, manage and distribute the power more efficiently.

Compared to typical silicon-based power chips, SiC power chips can withstand voltages 10 times higher, which means they can offer the same performance at just one-tenth of the thickness. These chips can also endure temperatures up to 600 degrees Celsius, meaning they do not require a cooling system.

Above all, SiC power chips consume less electricity, which translates to a greater driving range, and makes them a potential game changer in the EV market.

Buoyed by the trend toward self-driving EVs, the size of the global automotive SiC chip market is expected to reach 17 trillion won ($14.3 billion) in 2025 from this year’s two trillion won, according to Shinhan Investment.

“SiC chips will become a megatrend in 2022,” Hyundai Motor Securities analyst Roh Geun-chang predicted.

THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

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