Obama picks NCSU to lead $140 million national research consortium

jmurawski@newsobserver.comJanuary 15, 2014 

  • Why Wide Bandgap Power Electronics?

    Wide bandgap semiconductors, which are now used in some LED lights and flat-screen TVs, are seen as the future of manufacturing because they use less electricity and can operate reliably in hotter and harsher conditions, which will save the industry money.

— The $140 million research consortium announced at N.C. State University on Wednesday came with fanfare as a stimulus for U.S. manufacturing, but the federal grants don’t come with job creation targets and won’t prevent American companies from hiring cheap labor abroad.

Instead, the consortium of five universities and 18 companies represents a bet by government and industry that electronic technology used in modern manufacturing is on the verge of a major scientific breakthrough and needs a governmental push to get it across the finish line.

The expected shift to next-generation semiconductors could propel electronic chips to new levels of power and efficiency, just as the advance from clunky transistors to tiny computer chips launched the information age several decades ago and spawned entire new industries and markets and consumer products.

“Now it’s starting to get serious and the market size is getting real and other countries are making a real push in this area,” said John Palmour, chief technology officer at Cree, the Durham semiconductor and lighting developer that’s in the project.

In many ways, the grant – the largest in N.C. State’s history – will work much as other research grants, with the coast-to-coast research to be coordinated from N.C. State’s Centennial Campus. Participants include universities in Virginia, Florida, Arkansas and California and companies in 10 states.

Local companies include RF Micro Devices, Delta Products, GridBridge and Vacon, a Finnish company with 50 employees in Research Triangle Park that makes drives that control electric motors. Another, ABB, is a Swiss energy conglomerate with 150,000 employees worldwide.

Many routinely receive federal research grants, some much bigger than their share of the amount announced for the N.C. State consortium. Several said they plan to hire researchers and engineers locally with the funding.

They will use the money to continue advanced research, in several cases in progress for more than a decade, in hopes of accelerating the commercialization of novel technologies and gaining an edge in emerging markets against competitors.

The goal of the consortium is to scale up three fabrication facilities for the next-generation semiconductors, including one at RF Micro Devices in Greensboro. The program will also create a master’s degree at N.C. State in Wide Bandgap Power Electronics, as the technology is called. And it will develop intellectual property and help companies test different manufacturing approaches before they invest in mass production.

The ultimate goal is to create an entire domestic industry based on the new technology that will keep industry and manufacturing in the United States, said N.C. State’s Dennis Kekas, the interim executive director of the consortium.

“The reason they go to foreign countries is they think they can get a cheaper deal and save on the bottom line,” Kekas said. “The idea here is to eliminate the possibility.”

The research grants require a 50 percent company match and will collectively account for about $54 million in corporate contributions. North Carolina will provide about $10 million over five years, and N.C. State is kicking in about $6 million. The feds will supply the balance of $70 million.

Details of the consortium remain to be worked out in contract negotiations between the the feds and the grant recipients, a legal process that will cover such issues as trade secrets and intellectual property and is not expected to be completed for several months.

ABB is receiving $2.1 million of the grant money and contributing $2.5 million, said Allen Burchett, ABB’s head of business development for North America. ABB employs 700 in Cary and Raleigh, 2,000 throughout the state and 30,000 in the United States.

ABB currently has no commercial application of wide bandgap technology and has been doing R&D in the area since the 1990s, said Le Tang, ABB’s head of corporate research for North America. “This money is going to help us move it from the lab to commercial quicker,” Tang said.

ABB’s Triangle-based officials said the technology remains too costly and unreliable for the high-voltage uses required by the equipment ABB makes and sells to the electric utility industry.

Cree has sold commercial applications of the technology for about a decade, primarily for use in solar inverters and other niche markets that represent a fraction of the technology’s $4 billion to $5 billion market potential in industrial applications like pumps, fans and conveyors, said Cree’s Palmour.

“These are markets where efficiency is everything,” Palmour said of the solar inverters. “Our goal is to get into the broader, big mainstream applications.”

Cree is not disclosing its share of the federal funding until the contract is finalized, Palmour said.

GridBridge, with fewer than five employees, is a 2-year-old Raleigh spinoff from another federally funded N.C. State energy consortium, and is working on smart grid applications of wide bandgap technology.

CEO Chad Eckhardt would not disclose the company’s grant amount but said it will be enough to hire several engineers and is “speeding our next generation road map.”

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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