ECE: Electrical & Computer Engineering
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Virginia Tech to be university partner in semiconductor innovation institute

Power-supply on a chip

A power-supply on a chip prototype (front), developed at Virginia Tech, that is based on GaN that is 10 times smaller than today's commercial technology.

January 21, 2014 — Virginia Tech is one of seven university/laboratory partners in the Clean Energy Manufacturing Innovation Institute announced by President Obama on January 15. The $140 million institute, headquartered at North Carolina State University, is charged with inventing the technology and manufacturing processes for power electronics devices based on wide bandgap semiconductors.

Power electronics devices are used by almost all modern electrical devices — from cell phones to electric cars — and by the equipment controlling the power grid. Using inverters and converters, power electronics converts electricity into the voltage and current needed by the device.

Today's power electronics devices are not 100 percent efficient and some energy is lost as heat during the conversion process. Improving power electronics efficiency could cut U.S. electrical energy consumption significantly, according to Fred Lee, professor of electrical and computer engineering (ECE) and director of Virginia Tech's Center for Power Electronics Systems (CPES).

For more than 50 years, electronics devices have been built using silicon. As devices have shrunk and become faster, the technology is reaching the limits of silicon and researchers are seeking alternative materials and technologies. A promising technology for improving power electronics efficiency is wide bandgap (WBG) semiconductor devices. WBG semiconductors operate at high temperatures, frequencies, and voltages and could significantly increasing the switching frequency and reduce power losses in power conversion processes.

Virginia Tech will lead the power electronics research and applications thrust of the Clean Energy Manufacturing Innovation Institute. Lee, CPES co-director Dushan Boroyevich, ECE associate professor Rolando Burgos, and ECE assistant professor Qiang Li will tackle wide bandgap applications in power electronics systems involving silicon carbide (SiC) and Gallium nitride (GaN). Virginia Tech will receive $3 million across a five-year period.

The institute is the first of several that will form the National Network of Manufacturing Innovation. Each institute will serve as a regional hub designed to bridge the gap between applied research and product development, by serving as a "teaching factory" to train students and workers and providing shared assets to companies. In addition to university and laboratory participants, 18 different industrial partners will contribute expertise and resources to the effort.

Alex Huang, professor of ECE at North Carolina State University, led the successful proposal effort. Huang currently serves as director of the National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center, the FREEDM Systems Center. From 1994-2004, Huang was on the ECE faculty at Virginia Tech and served as a technical lead at CPES. "We are very proud of Alex and all our CPES faculty and student alumni," commented Lee.

The institute will receive $70 million from the Department of Energy in the next five years, an amount that will be matched through a combination of funds from the businesses and schools involved, along with at least $10 million from the state of North Carolina.

In addition to North Carolina State and Virginia Tech, the partner universities and laboratories include Arizona State University, Florida State University, the University of California at Santa Barbara, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.

The 18 company partners include ABB, APEI, Avogy, Cree, Delphi, Delta Products, DfR Solutions, Gridbridge, Hesse Mechatronics, II-VI, IQE, John Deere, Monolith Semiconductor, RF MicroDevices, Toshiba International, Transphorm, USCi, and Vacon.