Si-on-sapphire is born
Peregrine was founded in 1990, but the company could be considered a late bloomer. It was founded by former researchers at the Naval Ocean Systems Center in San Diego to commercialize silicon-on-sapphire.
That was no small task. The technology was invented in 1963 at North American Aviation (now Boeing), but the technology never made it outside the lab, according to Peregrine. HP, RCA and others developed silicon-on-sapphire chip technology for niche applications in the 1970s.
But for the most part, the technology was exotic, expensive and difficult to make. Even Peregrine experienced difficulties in the early years. The turning point came in 2003, when the company was able to scale the technology, thereby gaining some traction in RF applications. ''We were an overnight success after 20 years,’’ Novak said.
''Silicon-on-sapphire was the first SOI solution, which began life in rad-hard space and military products over 25 years ago. Sapphire is a superior insulator compared to SOI, and it has finally become cheap enough for commercial deployment,’’ said Will Strauss, president of Forward Concepts Co. (Tempe, Ariz.) ''Peregrine’s revenues have steadily increased through the semiconductor market slump, and their market position looks to be very strong.’’
With little or no fanfare, the privately-held chip maker has seen its sales jump from just over $10 million in 2005, to about $64 million in 2008. Even during the recession in 2009, the company grew as it sales hit $72 million, while also claiming to be profitable.
In March, Peregrine announced the expansion of its European design and manufacturing operations and the opening of a new facility located in Aix-en-Provence, France. Peregrine’s operations include RF design and engineering at its center in Aix-en-Provence.
This year, its sales are projected to hit $100 million. An IPO is also in the works. Peregrine sells a plethora of RF parts for wireless, broadband CATV/DTV and high-reliability applications.
It is gaining traction in the RF switch portions of mobile designs, where the company’s technology is displacing GaAs devices from various vendors. Peregrine’s UltraCMOS technology is based on third-party sapphire wafers that are grown as large crystals in a controlled environment.
The breakthrough that enabled its ultra-thin films was developed by the California Institute of Technology and Hewlett-Packard Co. in the 1970s, according to Peregrine. The process, dubbed solid phase epitaxial regrowth (SPER), involves a silicon implant.
''The implant parameters are set so that the silicon crystal is amorphized in the region near the sapphire interface, but the better quality crystal away from the interface is left intact. An anneal then regrows the amorphous silicon into a single crystal by using the upper layer of the film as a template. The final step is the thinning of the silicon layer to about 100 nm thickness by oxidation,’’ according to Peregrine.
HP never commercialized the SPER technique, but the work was continued and refined by the Naval Ocean Systems Center. Technologists left NOSC to form Peregrine, which refined and commercialized the technology.