May 31, 2018

*This is the second blog in a two-part introductory series explaining various
aspects of model-based power amplifier (PA) design. Part 1 covered the basic concepts
of a nonlinear GaN model.*

As a relatively newer technology, gallium nitride (GaN) requires some different techniques and thinking than other semiconductor technologies.

For those new to GaN PA design, an understanding of I-V
curves (also known as current-voltage
characteristic curves) is a good place to start. This blog examines the
importance of I-V curves and how their representation within a nonlinear GaN
model, like those in the Modelithics
Qorvo GaN Library, can help make your design process more accurate and
efficient.

**GaN: The Basics**

Brush up on your knowledge of GaN.

You can think of I-V curves a little like a soccer field — sometimes called a "pitch" — where the limits dictate the boundaries for the microwave signal, as shown in the figure below. In simple terms, once you hit the boundary, you get signal clipping, which causes compression and nonlinear distortion. The boundaries are set by the following:

- The
**knee voltage**and**maximum current**(I_{max}), indicated by the corner marker**m1**in the figure - The zero-current line corresponding to the gate-to-source
**pinchoff voltage**(V_{po}) - The
**breakdown voltage**(V_{BR}) indicated by the curling up of the current line on the right

The figure also shows the following:

**Marker m1**indicates the knee voltage (V_{k}).-
**Markers m2, m3 and m4**indicate nominal quiescent bias conditions representing Class A, AB and B conventional PA operating classes or modes, respectively. To be sure, there are other modes — for example, Class C bias corresponds to a gate voltage more negative than the pinchoff voltage and consequently has RF current flowing for less than half a cycle of the input gate voltage waveform.

**Remember:** For GaN devices, the pinchoff voltage is
always a negative voltage. Learn more
>

The various curves represent different values of the gate to source
voltage, from pinchoff (in this case, about ‑4 V) to slightly positive
values (V_{gs} = 1 V). For this device, note that the
absolute maximum current allowed (I_{max}) is about 900 mA, and
the breakdown voltage (V_{BR}) is around 118 V.

The spacing of the I-V curves for different values of V_{gs} is
related to what is called the **transconductance**
(g_{m} ≈ ΔI_{ds}/ΔV_{gs}), which in turn is related to
the gain. (In this figure, the V_{gs} step voltage is 0.2 V.)
Notice that in the vicinity of **m4** (Class B bias), the curves
are more closely spaced compared to **m3** (Class AB). This
is one reason Class AB, which has similar efficiency advantages as
Class B, is often preferred due to higher gain.

**Glossary of Notations**

**I _{ds}:** drain-to-source current

**I _{dsQ}:** drain-to-source quiescent current

**I _{max}:** maximum current

**V _{BR}:** breakdown voltage

**V _{d}:** drain voltage

**V _{ds}:** drain-to-source voltage

**V _{dsQ}:** drain-to-source quiescent voltage

**V _{g}:** gate voltage

**V _{gs}:** gate-to-source voltage

**V _{gsQ}:** gate-to-source quiescent voltage

**V _{k}:** knee voltage. The place in the I-V curve
where the voltage goes up.

**V _{po}:** pinchoff voltage. The specific point
when the device is off at a particular voltage. For GaN, pinchoff is a
negative voltage.

The figure above also shows a dashed blue line and a solid dark gray line to indicate possible load-lines along which an AC signal would swing back and forth. In an ideal sense, the dark gray line allows for maximum use of the I-V “playing field” and would allow a signal to make use of the maximum current and maximum voltage swing.

In this example, the quiescent bias voltage might in principal be set to
61 V. However, for reliability and design margin reasons, I’d
recommend a lower nominal bias voltage (always less than half the breakdown
voltage) and different optimal load-line (here we chose 28 V, marked
*m2, m3* and *m4* in the figure above). A simple rough
estimation of the power potential of the device (for Class A
and B) can be provided as
0.25*(*V _{dsQ}-V_{k}*)*

For a given process, the breakdown voltage tends to be constant, so you
can obtain more power by increasing the gate width. This leads to a common
metric for power capability called **power density,** which for
GaN is on the order of 5-10 watts per mm (W/mm) of gate width, compared
to 0.5 to 1 W/mm for GaAs transistors.

In simple terms, to maximize current/voltage peaks before clipping and
thereby optimize power output, the load resistance would be the reciprocal
of the load-line slope (neglecting device and package reactive parasitic
effects). This optimal power load invariably is different than that needed to
maximize the gain of the device derived from linear circuit theory.

Coming back to our simple estimation of power capability,
0.25*(*V _{dsQ}-V_{k}*)*

- Devices with higher I
_{max} - Devices that can operate at higher quiescent voltages
- Devices that can do both (higher I
_{max}or V_{dsQ})

Commercial GaN processes have breakdown voltages between 100 V and
200 V, an order of magnitude higher than GaAs breakdown voltages and
also over twice that of typical LDMOS processes. GaN effectively expands the
boundaries of the I-V playing field mentioned earlier, and this expansion of
the I-V curves is what makes the technology so exciting for high-power PA
design.

**Trapping** is an electrical phenomenon that affects both
GaAs and GaN HEMT
device operation. It occurs in the epitaxy layers of the device, where
electrons that could be available to enhance current flow in the HEMT channel
become essentially “trapped” in defect states occurring at the
surface or within the GaAs or GaN lattice. This trapping is voltage dependent
and degrades the device’s operation over time, affecting parameters such
as the knee voltage.

One of the well-known consequences of trapping in GaN is called
**knee walkout,** which moves the I-V curve knee voltage toward
the right, as shown in the following figure.

The good news is that nonlinear GaN models can help predict this trapping
behavior. The figure below shows the I-V curves for one of the Qorvo die
models, as captured in the Modelithics Qorvo GaN Model. It shows the
simulation of two different quiescent drain voltages (12 V and 28 V,
marked *V _{dsQ1}* and

Note how both the **knee voltage** and
**I _{max}** are affected by this trap-related knee
walkout effect. With the

As we know from the above discussion, both parameters in turn affect the maximum power potential of the device — so the model’s ability to track I-V changes with operating voltage can be quite important depending on the application.

It’s important to understand the impact and nuances of I-V curves and, in turn, their fundamental limitations and impact on PA design. If you are new to this field, hopefully this blog has helped you appreciate that there really is a lot of useful information in an I-V curve!

Choosing load conditions that maximize large-signal power capability is
quite different from linear conjugate match thinking — and using
nonlinear GaN models during the design process can help you to get the design
right the first time. Rather than primarily worrying about matching to the
output impedance of the transistor, we need to think in terms of **how to
maximize the current and voltage swing across the I-V “playing
field,”** which is governed by the boundaries of the I-V curves from the
knee voltage and maximum current down along a chosen load-line to the pinchoff
region.

Download our brochure or visit our Modelithics Qorvo GaN Library page in the Qorvo Design Hub to learn more about our nonlinear models for Qorvo GaN transistors. You can request free access at https://www.modelithics.com/requests/qorvogan.

Note: The first and last example images in
this blog are recreated based on images output from the Modelithics Qorvo
GaN Library.

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