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VOL.9, NO.1, JANUARY 2014

Robust GaN MMIC Chipset

for T/R Module Front-End Integration
Ernesto Limiti1*, Sergio Colangeli1, Andrea Bentini1 and Walter Ciccognani1
Dipartimento di Ingegneria Elettronica, Universit degli Studi di Roma Tor Vergata,
Via del Politecnico 1, 00133, Rome (Italy)
Tel: +39-0672597351; Fax: +39-0672597935; E-mail:

Abstract - In this contribution, a set of robust GaN has been driving the technological advancement
MMIC T/R switches and low-noise amplifiers, all toward the development of alternative integrated
based on the same GaN process, is presented. The circuit technologies. In particular, GaN
target operating bandwidths are the X-band and monolithic technology is an excellent candidate
the 2-18 GHz bandwidth. Several robustness tests
for improving future front-end solutions [7], due
on the fabricated MMICs demonstrate state-of-
the-art survivability to CW input power levels.
to the inherent linearity and power handling
The development of high-power amplifiers, robust capabilities of GaN HEMT devices.
low-noise amplifiers and T/R switches on the same
GaN monolithic process will bring to the next The effectiveness of GaN for high power
generation of fully-integrated T/R module amplifiers design and fabrication is broadly
front-end MMICs. accepted and demonstrated [8]; nevertheless, it
can dramatically improve T/R module
Index Terms AESA systems, GaN MMIC, GaN integration if it is considered for LNA and T/R
SPDT switch, robust GaN LNA, T/R modules. switch design [9-11]. In fact, exploiting inherent
GaN HEMTs ruggedness, robust low-noise
amplifiers [12-20] can be designed avoiding the
use of limiting circuits along the RX path.
Moreover, the realization of GaN SPDTs able to
Phased-array radar systems, based on active
handle high power levels leads to the possibility
electronically scanned antennas (AESA)
of swapping the ferrite circulator with an
equipped by a huge number of Transmit/Receive
integrated circuits [21-29]. In prospect, a full
(T/R) modules are on the leading edge of radar
integration of the T/R front-end in GaN
technology and are expected to play a key role in
technology, as depicted in Fig. 1, seems to be
a variety of applications, from satellite
feasible in a near future, resulting in a
communications and remote sensing, to
noteworthy reduction of the overall T/R
surveillance and electronic warfare.
modules size, weight and costs.
A typical T/R module is made up of a GaAs
MMIC chipset, consisting in a high-power
amplifier, a low-noise amplifier protected by a
limiter, and a multi-functional chip, namely
Core-Chip, to which the RF phase and amplitude
control functions are ascribed [1-6]. In addition,
a ferrite circulator routes the transmit (receive)
signals from (to) the HPA (LNA) to (from) the
antenna. However, the rising need for higher
output power levels, broader bandwidth, higher
operating voltages and higher robustness, as well
as for more compact, reduced-weight modules, Fig. 1 Block diagram of a T/R module front-end
implementation in GaN technology.

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In Section II, a GaN HEMT monolithic process requirements, the X-Band single-pole double-
developed by SELEX-ES is presented. Such throw switch is based on the standard
technology has been adopted to design and series/shunt FET switch topology, where the key
realize a number of robust GaN MMIC T/R building block is represented by a resonated-type
switches and low-noise amplifiers, that are single-FET switch [28] adopted as a series
described in Sections III and IV, respectively. element in conjunction with an optimized
number of shunt elements.

II. TECHNOLOGY A microphotograph of the resulting fabricated

SPDT switch, whose size is 2.4x1.9 mm2, is
The MMICs discussed in this work have been illustrated in Fig. 2 [22]. From small-signal
fabricated with the SELEX-ES GaN-HEMT measurements, a very good insertion loss,
microstrip monolithic technology. The process is around 1 dB, has been obtained, and the very
based on an epi-layer structure of good in-band isolation of the single
GaN/AlGaN/GaN deposited on semi insulating TL-resonated switch has been further improved
SiC substrates by either MOCVD or MBE by the parallel-connected cells, yielding better
techniques. The mask levels for MMIC than 37 dB isolation all over the design
fabrication are based on a mix and match bandwidth. In addition, the measured input and
procedure utilizing both I-Line Stepper and output matching levels are better than 13 dB.
Electron Beam Lithography for the fabrication
of the high resolution quarter micron Gate
dimensions necessary for the HEMT devices.
After active device formation the MMIC
fabrication process comprises: the deposition of
NiCr thin-film resistors, MIM capacitors and
electro-plated inductors and interconnect
transmission lines, with air-bridges where
necessary. The fabrication process is concluded
with back-side wafer processing for the
fabrication of through substrate via-hole
interconnects. Further details on the complete
fabrication process and the devices
characterization and modeling can be found in
Fig. 2 Microphotograph of the X-band SPDT switch.
[30]. This process is compatible with an
innovative (patent pending) implementation of As far as linearity and survivability are
Field Plate to mitigate short-channel effects. In concerned, a very high power handling has been
particular, a Schottky plate is placed between the measured at 12 GHz, as shown in Fig. 3, where
gate and drain electrodes, and biased at a zero or 39 dBm input power causes no noticeable
positive (1 V) voltage through a 1 k resistor. compression phenomena, neither damage. Due
Further details can be found in [31]. to limited test bench power generation
capabilities, the 1 dB input power compression
has not been reached.
B. Low Noise Amplifier
A. Transmit/Receive SPDT
The design goal was to obtain a robust LNA
A well-designed T/R switch has to be featured with performance appropriate to short- and mid-
by low insertion loss, high isolation, high term evolution of X-band SAR systems, such as
linearity and high power handling. To meet such

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Cosmo 2nd Gen (CSG). In particular, a noise The applied test process consisted in exposing
figure less than 2.5 dB as well as a linear gain biased MMICs to a calibrated CW input RF
higher than 25 dB were chosen as target values. power at 9.6 GHz, with a duration of 1 s, and
Such specifications have already been achieved measuring the post-exposure gain (after the RF
in [32]. overdrive). Such measurement process was
repeated by incrementally increasing of 1 dB the
input RF drive up to about 43 dBm. Due to the
limited dynamic range of the power sensor, the
post-exposure gain was not measured in linear
region but at a compression level of about
17 dB. Fig. 5 (top) shows the output power
under stress condition, while Fig. 5 (bottom)
depicts the post-stress gain. LNA circuits show
no performance degradation with an input RF
overdrive up to 41 dBm.

Fig. 3 Insertion loss and output power of the X-band

SPDT switch vs.input power at 12 GHz.

In the following, an improved version of the

X-band LNA reported in [32] is presented. In
this second-run realization, a fine tuning of the
first-run LNA output matching network has been
performed with the main goal of achieving a
lower gain ripple over frequency, while, as for
the first LNA version, a specific approach for
optimum noise performance has been adopted
Fig. 4 Microphotograph of the X-band LNA.
Fig. 4 depicts the second-run LNA, whose size is
32.5 mm2. Measurement results on the
fabricated MMIC show a noise figure of about
2.2 dB at the optimum drain voltage VDS = 10 V.
Notice that the MMIC is designed as including
the input and output bonding wires (length
600 m, diameter 25 m), therefore the actual
noise figure is expected to be some tenths of dB
less than measured on wafer. As to the
transducer gain, that is over 25 dB with an
associated ripple of 0.5 dB, the effects of
simulated bonding wires were added to
measured S-parameters. In the same way, the
measured input and output return losses are
better than 10 dB and 15 dB, respectively.

The ruggedness of this LNA has been

investigated under input overdrive conditions. Fig. 5 Pin-Pout curve (top) and post-stress compressed
gain (bottom) of the X-band LNA at 9.6 GHz.

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Such measured power level is a remarkable The measured insertion loss performance of the
result in terms of power handling capability and realized switch is about 2 dB, while better than
to the authors knowledge the fabricated LNA 25 dB isolation has been achieved all over the
exhibits a state-of-the-art survivability for 2-18 GHz bandwidth: such results are fully
X-band applications. compliant with the design goals. Finally, the
measured input and output matching levels are
better than 10 dB.
Regarding linearity and survivability, this
A. Transmit/Receive SPDT broadband SPDT exhibits comparable power
handling with respect to the X-band realization.
The wideband SPDT power switch is based on Also in this case, as shown in Fig. 7, measured
the same transistor topologies and models results at 12 GHz demonstrates no signs of
outlined for the X-band version above. In this damage with input power levels up to 39 dBm,
case, the design goal was to achieve a 218 GHz where the P1dB has been reached.
switch with insertion loss better than 2 dB,
isolation higher than 25 dB, and power handling
at 1 dB compression (P1dB) greater than 5 W
[23, 27].

The series/shunt circuit topology adopted

consists in one series device cascaded to two
shunt FETs. Similar to the X-band circuit, the
wideband design was performed using the
compensation concept [29]: in particular, a
resistor has been added in series with the high-
impedance transmission line to reduce the
resonance quality factor. A micrograph of the
fabricated wideband SPDT switch, with overall Fig. 7 Insertion loss and output power of the
dimensions 2.0x1.7 mm2, is illustrated in Fig. 6. 2-18 GHz SPDT switch vs. input power at 12 GHz.

B. Low Noise Amplifier

The design goal was to achieve a robust

low-noise amplifier operating in the 218 GHz
bandwidth, exhibiting noise and gain
performance in line with the state-of-the-art and
that could survive a CW input power in excess
of 5 W.

In order to satisfy these requirements, a three-

stage circuit configuration, with each stage
consisting of a two-cell distributed amplifier (2-
2-2 topology), was firstly adopted [19]. This
approach is quite unusual in a low-noise
distributed amplifier, where typically a large
Fig. 6 Microphotograph of the 2-18 GHz SPDT number of cells are considered for each
switch. travelling wave structure.

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With the aim of improving gain and noise 22 dBm (corresponding to 1 dBm input power)
performance of [19], without sacrificing while the typical TOI is 29 dBm. For higher
robustness, a novel scheme (6-3-3 topology) was input levels the output power saturates to
specifically developed to allow the fulfillment of 26 dBm.
the conflicting specifications of low noise, high
gain, high maximum frequency, and robust
operation. In particular, a smaller gate periphery
has been selected for the first distributed stage,
to reduce noise figure, together with a larger
number of cells for each stages to flatten the
gain response over frequency. A
microphotograph of the fabricated LNA, with
overall dimensions 3.82.9 mm2, is illustrated in
Fig. 8 [20].

Fig. 9 Pin-Pout curve of the 2-18 GHz LNA at

4.5 GHz.

It is worthwhile stressing that such MMIC can

withstand more than 10 W input drive with no
signs of damage: indeed, the 40 dBm limitation
was due only to the available instrumentation,
not to DUT failures. Such input power level is
the highest reported for multi-octave LNAs
without performance degradation.


Fig. 8 Microphotograph of the 2-18 GHz LNA. GaN monolithic technology could represent a
relevant breakthrough for the next generation of
Linear and nonlinear tests have been performed
T/R module front-ends. Exploiting GaN
following the same procedures as for the
features, HPA, power T/R switch and robust
previous LNAs. The measured gain exhibits an
LNA can be fully integrated onto the same chip.
average value of 23.3 dB with a ripple of
This contribution demonstrates the near-future
0.8 dB in the 120 GHz frequency range: such
effectiveness of such implementation by the
a flat gain response demonstrates the
design of several GaN MMIC robust SPDTs and
effectiveness of the design approach. A
LNAs fabricated in the same technological
minimum noise figure of 3.3 dB resulted at
process, both with narrowband and broadband
3 GHz, while the noise figure does not exceed
4.7 dB at 18 GHz. Finally, the measured input
and output return losses are better than 8.5 dB.
The PinPout characteristic of this MMIC was
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