Cree CTO John Palmour is confident that SiC-based switches and diodes will continue to outperform incumbent technologies such as silicon, which should lead to broader adoption and further cost reductions.
John Palmour had no idea what awaited him after leaving his job delivering pizzas to earn his PhD in Materials Science and Engineering at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C., U.S.A. Palmour was drawn to the University partially because it was in his backyard—raised in Raleigh, John also received his undergraduate degree from the university where his father was a professor—and partially because he saw the opportunity to be at the forefront of cutting-edge research. Unbeknownst to Palmour, that research would eventually spawn Cree, a market-leading innovator of semiconductor products for which Palmour is currently the chief technology officer (CTO) for its Power and RF businesses.
Commissioned by the Office of Naval Research, Palmour and his graduate school colleagues investigated the use of silicon-carbide (SiC) in high power phased array radar (an application Cree’s RF business still addresses today). Based on their research and after initial success in bulk SiC crystal growth, Palmour and his classmates founded Cree—a family name belonging to two of the co-founders—in 1987.
“I thought that my worst-case scenario would be earning my PhD and gaining valuable experience, but my best-case scenario would be both earning a PhD and the unique opportunity of working with an obscure semiconductor that had tremendous potential,” said Palmour. “I had no idea I would help start a company. But I had nothing to lose.”
Since 1987, Cree has become a global leader in the innovative use of SiC technology, most notably in the solid-state lighting (SSL) industry. “When we started, we identified three potential markets for silicon carbide: high power devices, high power RF devices and LEDs,” said Palmour. “We chose to focus on making blue LEDs.”
At the time of Cree’s founding, red and green LEDs already existed. But Palmour and his partners knew that if they could introduce a blue LED, they could make white light and open the door for broader applications like full-color video displays and even general lighting. “People thought we were crazy but the market potential was huge,” he said.
While most of the company’s revenue was spent ramping up LED production, behind the scenes Palmour confidently led the company’s Power and RF businesses through federally-funded projects in power applications.
In 1989, Cree introduced the world’s first blue light-emitting diode, a landmark that paved the way for billboards and large video screens to produce full-color displays.
“With the blue LED, we had the opportunity to define the market,” said Palmour. “We also knew that SiC had just as much potential to transform power devices, but we had a long way to go.”
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