Third Frontier funding expands power electronics research

Posted: June 30, 2010

Reprinted from the College of Engineering website. Visit the College's news section for the latest in engineering news from Ohio State.

A new research center at Ohio State’s College of Engineering will focus on the commercialization of semiconductors for electrical power handling in the military and civil aircraft industry.

The Ohio Third Frontier commission recently awarded the College of Engineering a $3 million grant to establish the Center for High Performance Power Electronics.

Through the center, Ohio State researchers will focus on technical development in power electronics for GE and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory. The university also will be a source of power electronics knowledge and trained engineers for Ohio’s power electronics manufacturers. GE, the Air Force Research Laboratory and Ohio State will provide the new center with an additional $6 million in funding, equipment and services.

Much of the research that will be conducted at the center will focus on aerospace technology, particularly in developing the uses for silicon carbide (SiC), a bluish-black crystalline compound that is one of the hardest known substances and considered to be the front runner in the “wide-band gap” power semiconductor revolution. The substance can be used in power semiconductors that operate at higher temperatures, higher switching frequencies and lower switching losses for engine starting, emergency power, battery charging and circuit breakers.

“In advanced military aircraft, such as the F-35 fighter, all of the generated electrical power is controlled with power electronics and virtually all of the loads are driven with power electronic converters,” says Longya Xu, a professor in Ohio State’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the principal investigator of the Third Frontier grant. “The U.S. Department of Defense has targeted silicon carbide as the critical switching element in game changing electrical power handling.”

Today, the power semiconductors of choice are silicon-based. However, silicon carbide-based semiconductors offer 50 to 100 degrees centigrade higher operating temperatures, three to 10 times higher switching frequencies and more efficient converters.

“By creating the Center for High Performance Power Electronics at the Ohio State, our existing Power Electronics Laboratory will be capitalized with instrumentation, software and test hardware to exploit silicon carbide-based power electronics for Ohio industry,” Xu says.

A hardware-in-the-loop facility specifically designed to exploit the qualities of silicon carbide will be established within the center, and GE and the Air Force Research Laboratory will collaborate with Ohio State to commercialize the first Ohio products using the compound.

“Although the initial applications of silicon carbide power electronics will likely be in the aerospace market, as the costs moderate, silicon carbide will eventually become ubiquitous in application and eventually will find its way into consumer products,” Xu says.

Applications will include the electric and hybrid electric vehicle industry and renewable energy systems, including wind and solar.

Launched in 2002, Ohio Third Frontier provides funding to expand the state’s technological strengths and stimulate economic growth. Ohioans voted in favor of the $700 million bond renewal in the May 4 statewide election.