Every year the technology industry comes out with more gadgets and gizmos for us to love and play with. These gadgets are wonders of engineering, sleek and polished and finely honed to perfection. The one irksome limitation is always power, which forces users to deal with large, ugly, clunky chargers. For most cell phones, the volume of space taken up by the charger is nearly the same as the phone itself. And the “power bricks” of laptop computers are often so massive they could be used to inflict serious damage on the heads of would-be attackers. In some cases, these chargers weigh nearly as much as the laptop does. When it comes down to it, the true portability of a device depends as much on its charger as it does on the device itself.
Well, there is good news on the horizon. Emerging out of the LED industry, gallium nitride technology is wending its way into the mainstream semiconductor and charger industries. Gallium nitride (also known by its chemical symbol, GaN) is slowly replacing silicon as the material of choice for many chip manufacturers. At this point in time, it is still more costly to produce GaN chips than silicon ones, but as more and more industry titans switch over and volume increases, the costs will come down just like they have with every other new technology.
Without getting too technical, the reason for the switch to GaN is that it has an air gap, also called a bandgap, that is about three times the size of that found in silicon. This larger gap makes GaN a better conductor of electricity. Electricity flows more freely and quickly, allowing safer operation at higher voltages and temperatures than would be possible with silicon. This means that GaN ICs are smaller, faster, and more power-efficient (which means cooler).
Silicon has been widely used in electronics for years. One reason for its popularity is that it is nontoxic to humans and animals. This cannot be said of some of the other materials used for making chips, such as germanium and gallium arsenide. Germanium, while not strictly toxic, has been known to cause liver problems in humans and with prolonged exposure even death. Gallium arsenide is most definitely toxic to humans and animals. The European Union classifies GaAs as a category 1B carcinogen … yikes! Gallium nitride, on the other hand, has been found to be just as nontoxic as silicon. It is safe enough to be used for biomedical implants. As a non-toxic, more power-efficient, smaller-footprint alternative to silicon, GaAs should satisfy even the staunchest eco-warriors.
Early adopters of GaN in the charger field, such as Anker, Belkin, and RAVPower, already have GaN charger products available to the consumer. These chargers are typically 40% smaller but still keep their pricing in line with their bloated silicon-based cousins. Of newsworthy mention is the Kickstarter project HyperJuice GaN charger. It is advertised as the world’s smallest charger, capable of sourcing a whopping 100W (the first GaN charger to hit this power level). It is roughly the size of a deck of playing cards and has two USB-C and two USB-A connectors.
As more and more GaN suppliers and manufacturers come online, the number of GaN charger options will go up dramatically. The increased competition that will result, along with the smaller size and other benefits of GaN itself, should quickly drive the price of GaN chargers down and their popularity up. Be sure to get yours and get a “charge” out of this new tech.