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4 February 2014

ABB contributing $2.5m as partner in five-year Next Generation Power Electronics Innovation Institute

ABB says that it is receiving $2.1m of the $70m grant over five years from the Advanced Manufacturing Office within the US Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) that is funding the new Next Generation Power Electronics Innovation Institute, which was announced on 15 January by US President Obama during a visit to consortium leader North Carolina State University (NCSU) in Raleigh, NC.

The formation of the institute is part of the US Government's National Network for Manufacturing Innovation Initiatives (NNMI), announced by The White House in February 2013 to bolster the competitiveness of US manufacturing. The new institute aims to invent and manufacture wide-bandgap (WBG) semiconductor-based power electronics that, within the next five years, are cost-competitive and 10 times more powerful than current silicon-based technology on the market.

After a competition for the government funding between several contenders (including a group in New York anchored by General Electric, says ABB), the DOE selected the NCSU-led US public-private consortium of more than 25 companies, universities and state and federal organizations. As well as 7 universities and labs (NCSU, The University of North Carolina, Arizona State University, Florida State University, University of California at Santa Barbara, Virginia Polytechnic Institute, National Renewable Energy Laboratory), the consortium includes 18 industry partners (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 $70m in federal funding is being matched by $70m in non-federal cost-share from the consortium partners (making $140m in total). ABB will hence contribute at least $2.5m over five years.

ABB of Zurich, Switzerland focuses on electric power engineering and industrial automation, and is the largest manufacturer of power electronics in the consortium. Of its 150,000 staff, the firm employs 700 in Cary and Raleigh, NC, 2000 in North Carolina, more than 20,000 in the USA, and 30,000 in North America. In particular, its North American headquarters, global Power R&D Research Center and regional power divisions are in the Raleigh area. ABB’s main role in the Next Generation Power Electronics Innovation Institute will be performance and reliability testing of materials in converter applications.

In announcing its part of the cost-share funding, ABB issued a statement by Greg Scheu, president & CEO of ABB Inc and regional manager for North America, who describes ABB as a global pioneer in wide-bandgap semiconductors research, dating back to its breakthroughs in silicon carbide research in the 1990s.

“ABB has been following closely the development of wide-bandgap semiconductors because we have a wide array of products that employ power electronics as an essential ingredient,” says Scheu. “These include solar- and wind-power inverters and converters; low- and medium-voltage drives for propulsion, pumping and compression for such things as ship propulsion and oil and gas pumping; industrial motors; electric car charging; and high-voltage direct current (HVDC) converters,” he adds.

“The promise here is for new semiconductor materials to be used for everything from smart phones to smart grids,” Scheu continues. “A greater potential for renewable energy can be unleashed when we make these semiconductors and products reliable, especially at high voltages, and make them cost-effective.”

The new manufacturing hub in Raleigh “has the potential to fast-forward development of some products by at least a decade,” reckons Scheu. “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,” he adds.

“The president asked 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,” Scheu says. “For example, can we cut electric consumption of industrial motors – one of largest uses of power – in half? Can wind and solar converters and inverters become more affordable? Can we make car chargers and data-center power supplies more compact? We are talking about new products, new applications and possibly new industries.”

ABB makes power electronics for many of these applications. These include:

  • converters used in industrial motors and drives (“We lead this global market, and the largest US industrial motor maker, Baldor Electric, is an ABB company,” says Scheu);
  • efficient solar inverters to reduce power loss (including products from ABB company Power One);
  • high-voltage products, such as high-voltage DC (HVDC) equipment; and
  • emerging low-voltage applications, such as electric vehicle technology and solar micro-inverters and power supplies.

“These are just the immediate areas that relate to ABB’s work, but WGB materials can also improve lighting, satellites, electric cars and other applications,” notes Scheu.

ABB manufactures power electronics inverters and converters in New Berlin, WI, Fort Smith, AK, Richmond, VA, and Phoenix, AZ, for wind, solar, power supplies and industrial motor applications. ABB companies (including Baldor and Thomas & Betts) have dozens of other manufacturing facilities for motors and low-voltage products that work with these materials.

However, although ABB is evaluating and researching uses, it does not currently use wide-bandgap semiconductors in its products. Nevertheless, ABB’s Corporate Research Center (one of seven ABB R&D centers globally) – also located on the NCSU campus – has been involved in wide-bandgap semiconductor R&D (as part of the more than $1bn that ABB spends on worldwide R&D annually).

ABB says that it will provide periodic updates on its progress regarding work for the Next Generation Power Electronics Innovation Institute.

See related items:

US DOE selects NCSU to lead $140m Next Generation Power Electronics Innovation Institute

Tags: Power electronics GaN SiC

Visit: www.ncsu.edu/power

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