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Obama announces $140m power semiconductor hub

16 January, 2014

President Barack Obama has announced the creation of a $140m institute that will work on next-generation power electronics with the aim of strengthening the US manufacturing sector, boosting advanced manufacturing and creating good-paying jobs. On the same day that he announced the Next Generation Power Electronics Institute in North Carolina, he also visited a research and development centre operated by the Finnish drives-maker, Vacon.

The aim of the new institute is to make wide band-gap (WBG) semiconductor technologies cost-competitive with current silicon-based power electronics within five years. If this is achieved, it could lead to a new generation of smaller, faster, cheaper and more efficient devices with applications ranging from motor controls and renewable power interconnections, to electric vehicles and consumer products.

WBG semiconductors are up to 90% more efficient than silicon-based technologies. They operate at higher temperatures and are more durable and reliable at high voltages and frequencies. They are expected to shrink the size of items such as small power converters by around 80%.

Announcing the formation of the institution, President Obama said that WBG devices could “make everything from cellphones to industrial motors to electric cars, smaller faster, cheaper. And the country that figures out how to do this first, and companies that figure out how to do this best, are the ones that are going to attract the jobs that come with it.”

The new institute, based at North Carolina State University, is designed to bridge the gap between applied research and product development, with the costs being shared between US federal agencies and companies, universities and other organisations. The US Department of Energy is contributing $70m to the institution over the next five years, matched by at least as much from the state of North Carolina, seven universities and laboratories, and a group of 18 businesses that includes ABB, Delphi, John Deere, Toshiba and Vacon.

The institute will provide shared facilities, equipment, and testing and modelling capabilities for companies involved in power electronics – particularly small and medium-sized manufacturers – to help them to invent and manufacture new semiconductor chips and other devices.

President Obama at Vacon's r&d centre in North Carolina with senior Vacon mechanical engineer, Mark Hoffman

The power electronics institution is the first of three manufacturing institutes announced by President Obama in his State of The Union address last year. The two others will focus on digital manufacturing and design innovation, and on lightweight metals manufacturing. The President’s vision is to have a network of 45 such hubs across the US, but this has yet to be endorsed by Congress.

While he was in North Carolina, President Obama visited Vacon’s r&d centre in Research Triangle Park, accompanied by the US Secretary of Energy, Ernest Moniz.

“The reason I came here today,” the President said, “is because we’ve got to do more to connect universities like NC State with companies like Vacon to make America the number-one place in the world to open new businesses and create new jobs.” 




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