Market Insights

The Hidden Importance of Power Electronics

May 01, 2015 by Frank Osterwald

A great time has come to an end for the partner consortium in the German publically funded research project BMBF-ProPower. These three years of intense

A great time has come to an end for the partner consortium in the German publically funded research project BMBF-ProPower. These three years of intense work in close relation to many partners have been a sometimes challenging but always fruitful and powerful time for us. Have you ever made the experience of working in a team of 21 partner companies and institutes? If not, it is hard to explain how it feels. It is even harder to explain what it means, when the collaboration comes to an end. If you have managed to make friends within the consortium, e. g. by good contribution to the project or by volunteering in organizing the frequent project meetings which are rather project meetings but conferences, you will be wishing, that the story goes on.

The ProPower project started in the beginning of 2012 most likely as the biggest BMBF-funded research project in the last decades. It was set up to develop compact power electronic packaging of new automotive traction modules as well as LED light engines including new materials development and process equipment. Basic research work packages linking the two main application work packages generated additional value. Even though the project came to a formal end in December 2014, some key partners prolonged the project period until end of March 2015. Aiming for finalizing the long lasting reliability and durability tests required more time, as the power electronics turned out to be literally unbreakable. The very good technical results and the very good collaboration within the big consortium has been a surprise to some of the critics. Particularly, in the beginning it was expressed by many people in the funding landscape that a multi-million Euro project with 21 partners will never ever fly. To be honest, some of the core team partners including ourselves were sceptic as well. However, we can assure you, that well established team spirit and well organized project leadership can overcome the natural hurdles of such a big organization. If the cost related to organization and administration is covered by the funding, the technical outcome per partner in a project like this can be much more than an individual partner can reach for. As the challenges in modern power electronic packaging are so big, this is a very promising way to create great solutions. So, don’t be afraid of big projects.

Unfortunately, even though we wished to do more, a series of joint project applications failed. Even worse: we were told by other consortia, that they were experiencing the same. In some of the project calls, we were told, there was just a 5-10% probability for getting the funding granted. Statistically, this would need 10 to 20 project application of a consortium to get a project funded. Obviously, this is not a realistic scenario! 

Often, we found it not easy to navigate in the funding landscape: Calls were released, where e. g. materials development in renewable energies was addressed. We applied for challenging power electronics packaging materials development and even though our project application scored extremely high in the evaluation, after months we were told that the call was not meant to be used for developing power electronic materials for renewable energies. If we had had the information in the beginning, we could have saved much time and effort. 

We were asking ourselves, what has happened? E-Mobility and Energiewende are trends in Germany that you can read of in the daily newspapers and power electronics is the key enabling technology to make it happen. So why are our project applications failing in spite of high evaluation scores? Do we need to demonstrate the beauty and the power of power electronics to the public? Is raising of political awareness for power electronics still an issue?

In the core team of the ProPower project, we decided to not sit and wait. We joined a dialogue with BMBF, NPE (National Platform Electromobility) and other power electronic packaging specialists during PCIM 2013 to find out, which direction funding will have to take. We made an attempt on creating a new research agenda: Organized and conducted by the ProPower core team, 150 top specialists from industry and academia were setting up a power electronic packaging and interconnection roadmap in a full day workshop at Siemens, Berlin in June 2014. The result is a more than 20 pages comprehensive description of future needs in power electronic packaging. 
As power electronics is not just a national trend, further internationalization of power electronic activities was initiated: the idea of a Japanese–European Network concentrating on materials development around power electronics was born and it will lead to the first workshop in Osaka, Japan these days. 

Lessons learned from these activities were discussed: We asked ourselves, if raising of political awareness for power electronics is still an issue. So, the ProPower core team set up an evening with members of the German Bundestag and other political decision makers. The evening was organized right after the public presentation of the final project results in March 2015: VIP’s from the German Bundestag, Ministries, the Economy Council and the European Center for Power Electronics (ECPE) were invited to discuss about the meaning of power electronics for Energiewende and E-Mobility and how to promote further development. It turned out, that particularly the invitees from the very north of Germany were interested in the discussion, because of their awareness of the important role of wind power for the economy in the northern region. 

As a key note speaker, Prof. Josef Lutz, TU Chemnitz has been asked to present on “Power Electronics as the Key Technology for a sustainable society”. He pointed out, that the German translation of power electronics: “Leistungselektronik” even though physically correct 
(“Leistung” = P=U*I) does not convey the same message as “power electronics” and other translations like the Danish “Effektelektronik” do. Having power and having an effect is much more characterizing the benefit of power electronics as a technology that can make things happen. He made the point that the public still does not regard power electronics being a contributor to Energiewende, E-Mobility and sustainability. According to Josef, power electronics in Japan is recognized as “Green Electronics” having high reputation in the society. He demonstrated that in the past 20 years, IGBT-based power electronics helped to reduce CO2 emissions in the order of what 390 Giga watt power plants would have blown in the air. Efficiency improvements by power electronics made 390 big power plants redundant? Let’s aim for making further 390 power plants redundant!  
Besides the role of power electronics for E-Mobility and Energiewende, Josef explained that without power electronics, the 4th industrial revolution will not happen. He concluded, that who is actively shaping the future of power electronics will be participating in the economic growth. Therefore, for more economic growth in Germany and in Europe, more basic research work in power electronics needs to be initiated. This could be driven by public funding.

Josef’s presentation of the fundamental role of power electronics as key enabling technology surprised the VIP’s even though they were already promoting Energiewende and E-Mobility. It was concluded, that it might be helpful to finding out what economic power is behind power electronics in Germany and Europe. An example was found in a study for South Denmark and northern Germany, where innovation within power electronics has become an increasingly important driver of economic growth. The study revealed astonishingly high revenue and growth figures for the power electronic companies in the main wind power region. It is expected, that power electronics will play the same important role in the economy of Germany and Europe. Shouldn’t this help to raise the political and public awareness for power electronics? 

What else could help to increase the prestige of power electronics? 
Is the Japanese way an option? Giving power electronics an attractive name, which everybody is using to show how he or she is contributing to a sustainable society?  
Do we need to create a more holistic picture of Energiewende, E-mobility and their key technologies?  
Does is take making “E-” more visible and tangible? 
Is writing guest editorials in Bodo’s Power Systems delivering a contribution? You, dear reader, might tell us later, in how far that has had a positive effect on the reputation of power electronics …

And you, dear reader, might also get the flavor of power electronics by joining the community of PCIM visitors and contributors these days in Nuremberg: Let’s carry the message back home that power electronics is one of the most important future shaping forces of today and tomorrow. 

In any case, for our power electronics community, it might be a good choice joining the European Center for Power Electronics (ECPE) as a way to express the willingness to shape the future of power electronics by being part of a research, education and communication community.

For us, it has been a great experience to turn a “big wheel” like this. However it is good to be back to daily work, we miss the partners from our ProPower project, already. We are looking forward to building up new project consortia to face the challenges of the future. This is definitely not to be dealt with as individual. The society needs power electronics, even though they might not yet be aware of. And power electronics needs all of us.