Wolfspeed, which produces chips that make electric vehicles considerably more efficient, said Friday it has embarked on a plan to build a new facility in North Carolina that will enable a 10-fold increase in the company’s manufacturing capacity.
“We make semiconductors or chips, but we use the base technologies called silicon carbide,” Wolfspeed CEO Gregg Lowe said in an interview with Protocol. “Semiconductors for the last 50 years have been dominated by silicon, and there’s a whole little valley a bit south of you named after it. And this new technology is more efficient than silicon.”
Formerly known as Cree, the silicon carbide chips Wolfspeed produces are much harder and hardier — they're bulletproof — than the typical silicon used to produce chips destined for iPhones and servers. A silicon carbide chip is capable of operating above 500 degrees Fahrenheit, and at electric voltages that are roughly 10 times what a traditional piece of silicon can handle.
Silicon carbide-based chips have found a niche in electric vehicles. After Tesla said that it was using such chips in one of its designs, much of the rest of the auto industry followed. Wolfspeed has inked a deal to supply chips to GM, and Lowe says the rest of the traditional automakers are following suit.
EV makers are interested in chips based on silicon carbide because they can use them in a component called an inverter, which transmits power from a car’s battery to the motors that make the wheels turn. The silicon carbide chips are considerably more efficient than using other materials, which can help increase the range of a vehicle.
“And what that means for high-power applications, is you’re going to waste less energy when you use it,” Lowe said. “That translates to an electric car — that it will go five to 15% farther using silicon carbide.”
The silicon carbide-based chips can also be used to speed electric vehicle charging, and Lowe said that the energy savings enable superior fast-charging capabilities because they can transfer considerably more power.
The new North Carolina facility will grow the raw silicon carbide ingots and transform them into 200-millimeter wafers to supply the company’s recently completed factory in New York. That factory is the first one capable of making silicon carbide chips with 200-millimeter wafers, Wolfspeed said.
“We figured out how to make an economic return going from 150 to 200,” Lowe said. “In silicon carbide, it may stop at 200, it may never go to 300. We definitely think we’ve got a whole decade of 200.”
Silicon carbide wafers are difficult to make, Lowe said. To grow the ingots the wafers are derived from, Wolfspeed built its own furnaces that generate roughly half the heat — 4,500 degrees Fahrenheit — at which the sun burns. Wolfspeed then slices the ingots into a slightly smaller version of the wafers that are the basis of the chip manufacturing process.
The company says it is the world’s largest producer of silicon carbide to begin with, and this expansion will increase its capacity to produce the raw material by tenfold.
Wolfspeed said it expects the first phase of construction to wrap up in 2024, and the second phase to end in 2030. All told, the facility will be more than a million square feet. Based on the state and local government incentives Wolfspeed says it will receive, the completed factory will require at least a $4.8 billion investment from the company.
Correction: This story was updated on Sept. 9, 2022 with the correct spelling of Gregg Lowe's name, and after the company corrected the size of the capacity increase provided by the new facility.