Blog: Wide Bandgap Semiconductors: Essential to Our Technology Future


By:  Ernest Moniz
Date: Jan. 15, 2014
Location: Washington, DC

Hidden inside nearly every modern electronic is a technology -- called power electronics -- that is quietly making our world run. Yet, as things like our phones, appliances and cars advance, current power electronics will no longer be able to meet our needs, making it essential that we invest in the future of this technology.

Today, President Obama will announce that North Carolina State University will lead the Energy Department's new manufacturing innovation institute for the next generation of power electronics. The institute will work to drive down the costs of and build America's manufacturing leadership in wide bandgap (WBG) semiconductor-based power electronics -- leading to more affordable products for businesses and consumers, billions of dollars in energy savings and high-quality U.S. manufacturing jobs.

Integral to consumer electronics and many clean energy technologies, power electronics can be found in everything from electric vehicles and industrial motors, to laptop power adaptors and inverters that connect solar panels and wind turbines to the electric grid. For nearly 50 years, silicon chips have been the basis of power electronics. However, as clean energy technologies and the electronics industry has advanced, silicon chips are reaching their limits in power conversion -- resulting in wasted heat and higher energy consumption.

Power electronics that use WBG semiconductors have the potential to change all this. WBG semiconductors operate at high temperatures, frequencies and voltages -- all helping to eliminate up to 90 percent of the power losses in electricity conversion compared to current technology. This in turn means that power electronics can be smaller because they need fewer semiconductor chips, and the technologies that rely on power electronics -- like electric vehicle chargers, consumer appliances and LEDs -- will perform better, be more efficient and cost less.

One of three new institutes in the President's National Network of Manufacturing Innovation, the Energy Department's institute will develop the infrastructure needed to make WBG semiconductor-based power electronics cost competitive with silicon chips in the next five years. Working with more than 25 partners across industry, academia, and state and federal organizations, the institute will provide shared research and development, manufacturing equipment, and product testing to create new semiconductor technology that is up to 10 times more powerful that current chips on the market. Through higher education programs and internships, the institute will ensure that the U.S. has the workforce necessary to be the leader in the next generation of power electronics manufacturing.