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What is gallium nitride, and why is it in your phone charger?

The device you're reading this on is full of silicon. Your car uses silicon components. Your refrigerator regulates its temperature with a silicon processor. The region of California that's home to a number of technology companies is even named after the ubiquitous element.

Slowly but surely though, silicon is being phased out in favor of a more efficient material called gallium nitride (GaN, for short), and its advantages are readily apparent in a new generation of gadget chargers.

What Is Gallium Nitride?

You've probably seen gallium before; it's that shimmery metal that melts into a liquid at only 86°F, and children (and children at heart) have used it as a fun novelty for years.

But if you combine gallium with nitrogen gas at high pressures or at a high enough temperature, it forms a hard, transparent crystal that acts as a highly efficient semiconductor of electricity. Or more plainly, as a more efficient alternative to silicon.

GaN crystals have been used in LED lighting and certain types of lasers for decades, but transformative GaN computer processors are on the horizon, and GaN device chargers are already commercially available.

Why Is It Better Than Silicon?

No semiconductor is perfectly efficient, and some of the electricity that they use will be lost in the form of waste heat. That's why your computer feels hot when it's under heavy load, or why your phone charger gets noticeably warm a few minutes after you plug in your phone.

GaN isn't perfectly efficient, but it's more efficient than silicon, and thus gives off less waste heat. That means components can be smaller and less space needs to be set aside for heat dissipation, meaning chargers can convert more energy in a smaller form factor.

So Why Isn't It Everywhere Yet?

Just because GaN is better than silicon in most ways doesn't mean that it's going to replace it overnight. Trillions of dollars of worldwide commerce revolves around silicon components. Unfathomably large worldwide supply chains rely on silicon. And most of all, companies are just really good at using silicon. Integrating GaN into electronics isn't quite as simple as just replacing the silicon parts with GaN ones, and in many cases, it just makes more short-term financial sense for companies to keep using the same silicon components that they've always used.

Not for nothing, GaN is also more expensive than silicon, at least for now. As manufacturing methods improve and more companies start to focus on creating the material, it will likely benefit from the same economies of scale that silicon enjoys, and get cheaper over time.

Where Can I Find GaN Now?

GaN can still be found in lasers (like the one in your Blu-ray player) and some LED lights, and will likely find its way into computer processors and solar panels over the coming years. But the material's big coming out moment has happened over the last year in the world of phone and laptop chargers.

This new breed of chargers, most of which feature the USB-C Power Delivery spec that can charge everything from phones to laptops, aren't dramatically different than silicon chargers, and you may have already used one without even realizing it. Generally though, they're notable for pushing more wattage through smaller form factors than would ever be possible with silicon.

Anker PowerPort Atom

Anker PowerPort Atom | ~$30
Anker PowerPort Atom | ~$30

It wasn't quite the first GaN charger to come to market, but Anker's PowerPort Atom has been one of the most popular GaN chargers released to date. Though its form factor isn't much larger than the 5 watt charger that Apple includes with most iPhones, it's capable of pushing up to 30 watts of power through its USB-C port, enough to charge most laptops.

Anker PowerPort Atom | ~$30

RAVPower 45W PD USB-C Charger

RAVPower 45W USB-C PD Charger | ~$28
RAVPower 45W USB-C PD Charger | ~$28

With a uniquely slim profile, RAVPower's 45 watt GaN charger is designed to slip easily behind furniture, allowing you to install a semi-permanent laptop charging cable behind your couch or bed. Its 45 watts of power fall squarely between the 30 watt charger that Apple includes with the MacBook Air and the 61 watt charger that it includes with the MacBook Pro, but it's more than capable of charging both.

RAVPower 45W USB-C PD Charger | ~$28

RAVPower 61W PD USB-C Charger

RAVPower 61W PD USB-C Charger | ~$26
RAVPower 61W PD USB-C Charger | ~$26

Rather than focusing solely on fitting the most power into the smallest size, this charger from RAVPower uses its GaN space savings to add an extra USB charging port for your phone. And even though it can charge two devices at once, it's still a bit smaller than Apple's 61W MacBook Pro charger, which can only charge one.

RAVPower 61W PD USB-C Charger | ~$26

Anker PowerPort Atom PD 4

Anker PowerPort Atom PD 4 | ~$100
Anker PowerPort Atom PD 4 | ~$100

The PowerPort Atom PD 4 is perhaps the best representative of GaN's potential at the moment. The desktop charger isn't much bigger than Apple's 87 watt USB-C charger that it includes with the 16" MacBook Pro, but it's more powerful at 100 watts, and is capable of charging two laptops and two tablets or phones at once across its four ports. It's not cheap, but it's the most impressive gadget charger on the market at the moment.

Anker PowerPort Atom PD 4 | ~$100

Are smaller, faster chargers a true paradigm shift? Not really. But they herald a near future where all of our electronics take up less space, run cooler, and use less electricity, and that's a future we should be excited about.

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