RF Energy: The Search for New RF Power Markets

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4Q 2017 | IN-4760

It’s become difficult to branch out beyond wireless infrastructure and defense/air traffic control for under 4 GHz.

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Is Wireless Infrastructure RF Power Really the Only Game in Town?


It should come as no surprise that RF power for Wireless Infrastructure (WI) is dominating the entire RF market. With sales for RF power devices hovering around US$1.5 billion, WI accounts for about two-thirds of the entire market. Add in defense and air traffic control and the combination is almost the entire business.

Broadcast, Industrial, Scientific and Medical (ISM) and non-cellular communications account for lesser amounts. The RF power device wireless infrastructure sub-segment has slowed down and the long-term trend for this sub-segment is essentially downward.

Vendors are scrambling around for new markets to help jump start an overall market with a queasy outlook.

Is RF Energy the Answer?


RF Energy is a relatively new sub-segment of the industrial part of ISM. Among the sub-markets of RF Energy are RF heating (especially cooking), lighting, clothes drying, and automotive ignition systems. There are other segments as well but the ones mentioned are garnering a great deal of attention lately. Actually, these applications have been around for years but RF Energy essentially is a collation of modern versions of these applied technologies.

The industrial cooking market is one of the most important. It runs the gamut from huge industrial cookers that can go in size up to 100KW to advanced microwave ovens that have sophisticated cooking controls. The common thread in these potential businesses is that solid-state RF power devices could be used.

In fact, there is an industry organization, the RF Energy Alliance, that is promoting development of these types of products. This group not only is concerned with RF power semiconductor devices but with other components as well such as substrate materials and connectors just to name a few.

Where’s the Problem?


As one goes though the list of applications for the new industrial RF applications there is one issue that keeps coming up and is in fact holding progress back. That issue is cost. Presently, these new solutions are not as cost effective as what is being used now.

If we look at microwave ovens there is a 10 to 20 times difference in price. Now, it is true that these new ovens are more sophisticated than a typical home microwave but the net effect is to niche these new ovens into a very small slice of the restaurant and gourmet cooking sub-segment. As an example, in quantities of 100 an 1100W 2.4 GHz magnetron tube used in present ovens sells for US$7. An equivalent power solid state PA could cost 100 times the cost of the tube.

Industrial commercial food cookers use very large microwave magnetrons that can put out up to 100KW. These tubes sell for US$8K to US$10K each and they can be rebuilt. The cooking environment is extremely messy and dirty as well. Solid state RFPAs for this application would need many modules to get to the required power level. Work is being done to bridge this cost gap as well but it will be an uphill climb.

This budding business is relying on future cost reduction and technology upgrades to get to competitive price points but it remains to be seen if that road can be crossed in any realistic sense. Progress is slow though on bringing any of this to market in a meaningful sense.


Companies Mentioned