The Obama Administration today announced the selection of North Carolina State University to lead a public-private manufacturing innovation institute for next generation power electronics. Called the Next Generation Power Electronics Institute, the new consortium will provide shared facilities, equipment and testing to companies from the power electronics industry, focusing on small and medium-sized companies. The 18 companies already committed to the consortium include: ABB, APEI, Avogy, Cree, Delphi, Delta Products, DfR Solutions, Gridbridge, Hesse Mechantronics, II-VI, IQE, John Deere, Monolith Semiconductor, RF Micro Devices, Toshiba International, Transphorm, USCi and Vacon.
The institute, backed by a $70 million investment from the Department of Energy, will focus on power electronics using wide bandgap (WBG) semiconductors, bringing together over 25 companies, universities and state and federal organizations.
“This $140 million manufacturing hub in Raleigh has the potential to fast-forward development of some products by at least a decade,” said Greg Scheu, president and CEO of ABB Inc., a Raleigh-based power electronics manufacturer. “We expect that consumers will start to see some low-voltage products, like residential solar, coming out the quickest and within five years. The high-power products like industrial motors and drives and hog-voltage gear will take a few more years to come to market, mainly due to the rigorous reliability testing requirements of the electric utility industry.”
Power electronics – such as inverters, transformers and transistors – help control and convert electricity and are playing a growing role in electricity generation, distribution and transmission. According to a study by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, approximately 30 percent of all power generation today utilizes power electronics between the point of generation and its end use. By 2030, this is expected to jump to 80 percent of generated electricity – supporting greater renewable energy integration and increased grid reliability. WBG semiconductor-based power electronics will be able to better withstand the power loads and switching frequencies required by next generation utility technologies.
Power electronics that use WBG semiconductors will also be smaller, more efficient and cost less. A WBG semiconductor-based inverter, which switches electricity from direct current to alternating current, could be four times more powerful, half the cost and one-fourth the size and weight of a traditional inverter. At a larger-scale, WBG semiconductors could help reduce the size of an 8,000 lbs. substation to 100 lbs. and the size of a suitcase – ultimately helping to lower the cost of electricity and build a stronger, more reliable grid.
WBG semiconductors such as silicon carbide and gallium nitride can operate at higher temperatures and have greater durability and reliability at higher voltages and frequencies.
The state of North Carolina is expected to contribute at least $10 million to the new consortium, which is expected to help bolster employment in North Carolina, as well as to help focus on manufacturing as a potential source of economic growth.
According to the official statement from the Obama administration, The Next Generation Power Electronics Institute supports President Obama’s vision for a full national network of up to 45 manufacturing innovation institutes that help make America a magnet for jobs and manufacturing and ensure that U.S. workers have the training they need to lead in the global economy.
“I see it this way,” said Mr. Scheu, “the president asked the industry to work together and see where we can replace silicon with other semiconductor materials to reduce energy loss — meaning huge energy efficiency — for equipment that can handle higher voltages, higher temperatures and higher frequencies. To me, this is the goal. And this is where the imagination takes off.”