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Dr. Bess Ng, Manager, Power Electronics: Silicon Valley and the future of power electronics

By Posted on June 5, 2013

When a whole region is named after a chemical element (i.e. silicon), there is no doubt of the disruptive power of technology on the region’s social and economic development. In advanced energy, a close analogy may turn out to be similar counterparts of silicon. Wide bandgap (WBG) semiconductor materials like silicon carbide (SiC) and gallium nitride (GaN) are essential elements in various power electronics such as the electric vehicle, renewable energy converters and industrial motor drives. Under active worldwide development over the past decade, WBG materials are poised to revolutionize the clean energy industry as we know it.

In light of the significant potential and impact of this technology, NextEnergy recently partnered with the Power Electronics Industry Collaborative (PEIC), to co-host an industry-led workshop called, “US Competitiveness: Wide Bandgap Power Electronics Industry” on March 28th, 2013. The workshop’s key objective was to assess the current state of the US power electronics industry, and identify the associated opportunities, challenges & pathways forward to boost domestic competitiveness. Dr. Timothy Heidel from Department of Energy (DOE) Advanced Research Project Agency- Energy and Mr. Mark Bellinger from Infineon North America (and PEIC’s board president) served as a guest presenters and panelists.

Overall, the workshop was a large success! This is mainly attributed to the generous support of the DOE and PEIC, as well as the active engagement of more than sixty workshop participants, which was made up of key industry players throughout the power electronics value chain, researchers from university and government laboratories, and officials from economic development organizations. The attendees’ enthusiastic discussions targeted the industry’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats for innovation leadership, manufacturing supply chain growth, market adoption and talent development.

The workshop’s inputs were then compiled into a report that was shared with both the attendees and targeted federal stakeholders. In particular, the concluding “Pathway Forward: Ideas & Recommendations” section of the report summarized the multiple action items the private and public sectors can, and should, undertake to address domestic competitiveness issues in WBG, specifically:

  • Implement an application-driven approach
  • Address reliability
  • Accelerate and de-risk innovation
  • Strengthen power electronics expertise
  • Develop long-term plan for sustained domestic competitiveness

A month after the event, the White House announced competitive-based funding opportunities to create three new manufacturing innovation institutes that will accelerate innovation in U.S. manufacturing.  It is particularly worth mentioning that one of these institutes will be led by the DOE and focuses squarely on “Next Generation Power Electronics” and wide bandgap (WBG) semiconductors for power electronic devices.   As the Advanced Manufacturing Office (AMO) stated, the “foundational technology [of WBG] is broadly applicable to multiple industries and markets with potentially transformational technical and economic impact.”  The exact reasoning that initiated our investigation in this sector initially!

In terms of direct impact, this federal opportunity could prove to be significant for our region, as one of the leading manufacturing states.  The institute’s public-private collaboration model is another one of our region’s sweet spots, and one for which NextEnergy has strongly advocated.  To this end, NextEnergy has been working tirelessly to ensure that PEIC’s “bottom-up” recommendations from our report are properly channeled during this open solicitation process.

While we do not know the exact outcome from this federal opportunity, we do know that the WBG and clean technology race – similar to silicon and the information technology race more than fifty years ago – is global and “[t]he U.S. cannot afford to sit at the side line – we must chart the path now”. Who knows, maybe the ongoing revitalization of our region hinges on the future of WBG advancements.  And maybe they will one-day refer to us as Wide Bandgap Valley?

Click here to download a copy of the report.

Further specifics of the new manufacturing innovation institutes can be found on the DOE’s Advanced Manufacturing Office (AMO) website.

To learn more about Power Electronics Industry Collaborative (PEIC), click here


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