An exotic material poised to become the semiconductor of choice for power electronics --- because it is far more efficient than silicon -- is now being eyed for potential applications in space.
Two NASA teams are examining the use of gallium nitride, a crystal-type semiconductor compound first discovered in the 1980s, and currently used in consumer electronics such as laser diodes in DVD readers.
Among its many attributes, gallium nitride -- GaN, for short -- demonstrates less electrical resistance and thus loses only a small proportion of power as heat.
It's no wonder then that scientists and engineers at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, are interested in seeing how they could tap into this versatile material to enhance space exploration.
With their funding, engineer Jean-Marie Lauenstein and scientist Elizabeth MacDonald are investigating Gallium-Nitride High Electron Mobility Transistors, or GaN HEMTs, for use in studying how Earth's magnetosphere couples to its ionosphere -- a key question in the field of heliophysics, which among other things studies the forces that drive change in our space environment.
Gallium-nitride transistors or semiconductors became available commercially in 2010, but they have not yet found their way into space scientists' instruments, despite their potential to reduce an instrument's size, weight, and power consumption.