ARPA-E Awards $30 Million for High-Performance WBG Power Converters

August 24, 2017 by Paul Shepard

The Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) today announced $30 million in funding for 21 innovative projects as part of the Creating Innovative and Reliable Circuits Using Inventive Topologies and Semiconductors (CIRCUITS) program.

CIRCUITS project teams will accelerate the development and deployment of innovative electric power converters that save energy and give the United States a critical technological advantage in an increasingly electrified economy.

Power electronic devices condition, control, and convert electrical power to optimize the transmission, distribution, and consumption of electricity. Power electronics are of critical national importance - 80 percent of all U.S. electricity could pass through these devices by 2030.

CIRCUITS projects leverage a new class of efficient, lightweight, and reliable power converters based on wide bandgap (WBG) semiconductor technology, using materials like silicon carbide or gallium nitride instead of the silicon that is dominant today.

"Hardware built with WBG devices has the potential to be smaller, lighter, and much more energy-efficient, with applications across valuable sectors including transportation, information technology, the grid, and consumer electronics," said ARPA-E Acting Director Dr. Eric Rohlfing. "Developments from CIRCUITS projects could one day lead to super-fast, compact electric vehicle chargers, more efficient ship propulsion systems, and lighter, aerodynamic aircraft that can carry more passengers with less fuel."

WBG semiconductors allow devices to operate at significantly higher speeds, voltages, and temperatures than conventional semiconductor materials, and do so in smaller, lighter packages. Previous efforts by ARPA-E have focused primarily on WBG material and device development. CIRCUITS focuses on new circuit topologies and system designs, ensuring the performance benefits of these new WBG devices are maximized.

Examples of selected CIRCUITS projects:

Imagen Energy, LLC - New Berlin, WI - 1200V SiC-Based Extremely Compact, 500 kW, 2000Hz Inverter for High Speed Permanent Magnet Synchronous Machine (PMSM) Applications (Category II) - $847,888. Imagen and its project team will develop a SiC-based compact motor drive system to efficiently control high power (greater than 500 kW), high performance permanent magnet electric motors operating at extremely high speed (greater than 20,000 rpm). Imagen Energy's design seeks to address a major roadblock in operating electric motors at high speed, namely overcoming large back electromotive forces (BEMF). If successful, the project team will demonstrate a motor drive capable of handling large BEMF and increase motor system efficiency over a broad range of operating speeds.

University of Arkansas - Fayetteville, AR - Reliable, High Power Density Inverters for Heavy Equipment Applications (Category II) - $2,163,630 The University of Arkansas and its project team will develop a 2-by-250kW power inverter system for use in the electrification of heavy equipment and other higher volume transportation applications (e.g., trucks, buses, cars). The team will leverage SiC power electronics devices to achieve high levels of efficiency while greatly increasing the volumetric and gravimetric power density of its system over existing ones. If successful, the team will achieve an improvement of four times the power density and reduce converter cost by 50% compared to today's technology.