Manufacturing Bits: April 20

SiC Power chip R&D; grid storage; smartfarms.


SiC power semi R&D
Earth Day, which supports environmental protection, takes place this week on April 22.

Technology plays a big role in the environment. Governments, companies, R&D organizations and universities are developing a multitude of environmental-related technologies.

In just one example, Swansea University has been awarded £4.8 million from the government of the United Kingdom to develop equipment to manufacture silicon carbide (SiC) power semiconductor devices.

The investment is key component for the development of Swansea University’s new Centre for Integrative Semiconductor Materials (CISM). The investment will fund a SiC power semiconductor pilot line with equipment at Swansea and Newport Wafer Fab. The pilot line will process both 150mm and 200mm SiC substrates.

Eventually, these devices will enable more efficient power electronics for homes, transportation and industry. It will enable the nation’s net zero ambitions.

Power semiconductors are used in the field of power electronics. Using solid-state devices, power electronics control and convert electrical power in systems. These include cars, cellphones, power supplies, solar inverters, trains and wind turbines.

These devices are specialized transistors that boost the efficiencies and minimize the energy losses in high-voltage applications. Power semis operate like a switch in systems, allowing the electricity to flow in the “on” state and stop it in the “off” state.

SiC power semis are based on wideband-gap technologies, which are more efficient with higher breakdown electric field strengths than traditional silicon-based devices. SiC devices is making inroads in several markets, particularly in electric vehicles, power supplies, solar and other markets.

Several companies, R&D organizations and universities are developing SiC devices. For example, Swansea University has received funding as part of the Driving the Electric Revolution (DER) program. This is part of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund led by UK Research and Innovation.

DER is investing a total of £28.5 million into equipment across the country for a competitive electrification supply chain to be built across sectors, including industrial, transport and energy.

This investment will bring together a UK-wide network of over 30 academic, research and technology organizations based around four regional DER Industrialization Centers. Each center is supported by industrial clusters and bodies, in South West and Wales, Scotland, the North East, and the Midlands. The centers will coordinate and build on the UK’s national capability to deliver long-term sustainable growth to achieve net zero carbon emissions.

SiC will play a big role in the arena. However, SiC power semis are still relatively expensive. SiC substrates, which are key to develop these devices, are prone to defects. So more innovation is required in the field of SiC.

“We welcome this funding which will contribute to further developing Swansea University’s power electronics capabilities. Power electronics is a key enabling technology and is used in all sectors from domestic appliances, transportation, through to renewable energy generation. This new pilot line will manufacture new innovations in SiC semiconductor chips for use in the next generation of power electronic systems that will be more efficient, lighter and play a crucial role in helping the UK meet its carbon reduction targets,” said Mike Jennings, associate professor at Swansea University’s College of Engineering.

Andrew Withey, compound process integration manager at Newport Wafer Fab (NWF), said: “This investment will allow NWF to develop next-generation SiC MOSFETs, devices at the heart of the green revolution, a critical component of our scale-up ambitions.”

Grid storage
A group has been selected to design and construct an R&D facility that will develop grid storage technologies.

A partnership of Harvey|Harvey-Cleary and Kirksey Architecture have been awarded a contract to design and construct the Grid Storage Launchpad (GSL). The Houston-based firms have been awarded a $52.9 million contract to build this facility on the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory campus in Richland, Wash. The $75 million GSL facility is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Electricity.

The facility will develop the technologies to boost clean energy adoption and make the nation’s power grid more resilient and secure. The GSL will provide validation and testing of new grid storage technologies—from basic materials and components to prototype devices—under grid operating conditions.

Construction could begin as soon as late this year, with the building operational and ready for occupancy as soon as 2023.

“Affordable grid-scale energy storage is a requirement for broad decarbonization of the electricity supply and a more resilient and flexible power grid,” noted PNNL Director Steven Ashby. “Today, widespread deployment of energy storage for grid applications is inhibited by the need for improved performance and reduced cost, and the ability to validate the reliability and safety of new technologies. Research at the Grid Storage Launchpad will address these challenges, accelerating the development and deployment of new grid storage technologies.”

“The U.S. has long been a pioneer in the research and development of new battery technologies. It is important that we transfer the research and development to U.S. industry,” added Jud Virden, associate laboratory director for PNNL’s Energy and Environment Directorate. “The GSL will fill key gaps in the grid-scale energy storage development cycle, including early validation of new technologies with input from industry developers and end users.”

The National University of Singapore (NUS) has created a solar-powered, fully-automated device called a “SmartFarm.”

The system is equipped with a moisture-attracting material to absorb air moisture at night when the relative humidity is higher, and releases water when exposed to sunlight in the day for irrigation.

The hygroscopic material that is used in the SmartFarm was tested by Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) for its application for humidity control for space-based agriculture. HI-SEAS is a habitat on an isolated Mars-like site on the Mauna Loa side of the saddle area on the Big Island of Hawai‘i at approximately 8200 feet above sea level.

“Atmospheric humidity is a huge source of freshwater but it has remained relatively unexplored. In this work, we’ve tried to mitigate food and water shortages simultaneously. We created a hygroscopic copper-based material and used it to draw moisture from the air. We then integrated this material into a fully automated solar-driven device that utilizes the harvested water to irrigate plants daily without manual intervention,” explained Tan Swee Ching, a professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at NUS.

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