What’s next for power electronics? A Q&A with Rob Ivester, Department of Energy

photo_rob_ivesterThe Department of Energy is working with North Carolina State University and a number of private industry partners to breathe life into PowerAmerica, also known as the Next Generation Power Electronics National Manufacturing Innovation Institute. Rob Ivester, Deputy Director-Advanced Manufacturing Office for the U.S. Department of Energy, is help leading the institute’s charge to speed technological innovation from concept to reality. He answered a Q&A to talk more about the institute’s goals and mission.

  1. What is the mission of PowerAmerica?

There is an ever-increasing global demand for power due not only to increasing population, but also a tremendous increase in the use of powered devices. This creates a tremendous strain on the environment. Additionally, the U.S. now imports more advanced technology products than it exports. To fix this, we need to grow our domestic manufacturing capacity and our high-skilled workforce.

PowerAmerica is developing advanced manufacturing processes that will enable large-scale production of wide bandgap semiconductor-based power electronics, which allow electronic systems to be smaller, faster, and more efficient than power electronics made from silicon.

Adoption of wide bandgap electronics will drive a wave of everyday products that deliver higher value with lower and cleaner energy use from grid transformers to electric motors to laptop chargers.

  1. What types of technologies are in development at the institute?

PowerAmerica is working with wide bandgap semiconductor materials. These include materials like silicon carbide and gallium nitride, which have the potential to reduce the size and weight of many electronic devices, along with improving their performance. While we’ve known about the superiority of wide bandgap materials over their silicon counterparts for decades, we currently lack the manufacturing processes to mass produce them cost effectively.

We’re collaborating to develop the materials, devices and modules to help realize the potential of wide bandgap semiconductors. The PowerAmerica partners are working together to improve both manufacturing reliability and performance, while simultaneously bringing down the cost.

We’ve strategically chosen a wide range of applications for these wide bandgap materials to diversify the portfolio. These projects will not only lead to new products using silicon carbide- and gallium nitride-based power electronics with an immediate improvement in energy performance, but will simultaneously build demand and help industry scale up their production volume.

  1. How is the institute helping with regional economic development and workforce training?

One of the reasons manufacturing is such an important sector of the economy is its large multiplier effect. Successful manufacturers have a positive impact in other sectors such as logistics and IT.

The Institute members are spread from coast to coast. As one hub in the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, PowerAmerica is working to bolster advanced manufacturing across the country, not just one region.  We’ll be sharing best practices and collaborating with other manufacturing institutes, like AmericaMakes, on joint projects.

One thrust area of PowerAmerica is a comprehensive workforce development program to create a pipeline of talent ready to support industry’s needs.  We’re working with high school and community college instructors to incorporate power electronics in their curricula. Along with our academic partners, PowerAmerica is offering research experiences for undergraduate students. The Institute will be using hybrid education models for a master’s program that take advantage of advances in distance education. We’ve also developed a novel partnership with MEPs to offer professional training for industry.

  1. What types of members do you have at the institute?

The membership includes national labs, so we are able to leverage their expertise and facilities. We also have nonprofit partners like trade associations, professional associations, and standards bodies. Additionally, our academic partners bring the fundamental science expertise to address the high priority technical challenges faced by companies throughout the supply chain.

The industry members are the real heart of the institute. The needs of the industry are the driving force of PowerAmerica and it’s crucial that we can help them identify and address their challenges.

  1. What are the benefits of good collaboration between business, government, and academia?

We want to exploit the full potential of wide bandgap materials by developing new design tools, new processes, new techniques, and providing feedback up and down the supply chain.  It’s going to take government, nonprofits and academia working together with industry to make that happen. The government can work with industry to establish policies that promote competitiveness of domestic manufacturers.  Nonprofits can help to establish new standards. In workforce development, academics deliver the training, but they must collaborate with companies to develop a curriculum that’s relevant and useful for industry.

  1. What would you like to see the institute accomplish in the next 5 to 10 years?

The institute itself needs to be self-sustaining after 5 years, so that’s a goal we’ll certainly need to meet.  But what we really hope to do is give U.S. manufacturers a head start and competitive edge in the emerging wide bandgap market.

Wide bandgap technology has the potential to reshape the global market for power electronic components by increasing the efficiency of everything that uses power electronics: industrial motors, consumer electronics, renewable energy systems, data centers, lighting. We want companies to introduce new products into the marketplace with vastly improved energy efficiencies. As one specific example, the international lighting market alone is projected to reach $84 billion by 2020 – that’s only 6 years away – and we want to help U.S. manufacturers capture the wide bandgap semiconductor and lighting markets.  In fact, we’re eager to position the nation to take advantage of all the other opportunities WBG technologies will bring.

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