ARPA-E Awards $35 Million to 12 Projects for Ultra-Efficient Power Management

February 11, 2019 by Paul Shepard

The U.S. Department of Energy today announced $35 million in awards for 12 projects that find new ways to harness medium-voltage electricity for applications in industry, transportation, on the grid and beyond. The selected projects are part of ARPA-E's Building Reliable Electronics to Achieve Kilovolt Effective Ratings Safely (BREAKERS) program, as well as the latest OPEN+ cohort, Kilovolt Devices.

"America's energy landscape is constantly evolving, and as new ways to generate and distribute power gain popularity, it's critical we develop the tools to maximize their utility," said U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry. "These ARPA‑E projects serve first and foremost to modernize how we move power around safely, reliably and efficiently, creating a new set of capabilities for tomorrow's utilities and industry. "

The 8 BREAKERS projects will work to develop new dc devices to better manage power by eliminating electrical faults, improving efficiency and reaction times, and potentially enabling greater proliferation of energy storage and renewable resources. The four Kilovolt Devices OPEN+ projects will focus on a variety of challenges facing power electronics in the medium-voltage space, with a particular eye toward grid security and reliability.

Today's power distribution networks are primarily powered by ac electricity, but dc can provide lower distribution losses and higher power carrying capacity. BREAKERS projects will develop dc devices that prevent electric arcing, a safety hazard, while handling large amounts of power and voltage.

Medium-voltage dc circuit breakers could enable significant improvements in the United States' electrical system, transforming how electricity is delivered and managed across the entire power grid, as well as critical applications in industry, transportation, and resource production.

The two of the top funded projects include:

BREAKERS - Eaton Corporation - Arden, NC

DC Wide Bandgap Static Circuit Breaker - $3,760,000

Eaton will develop a silicon carbide-based direct-current circuit breaker design that boosts efficiency and can scale up or down medium-voltage application requirements. The team's comprehensive approach includes a robust design that effectively dissipates excess energy and autonomously coordinates fault protection across multiple devices. The project results will extend to future ultra-wide bandgap power semiconductor devices and other advances affecting future generations of devices and power electronics.

OPEN+ Kilovolt Devices - Sandia National Laboratories - Albuquerque, NM

20 kV Gallium Nitride pn Diode Electro-Magnetic Pulse Arrestor for Grid Reliability - $5,415,000

Sandia National Laboratories will develop a new device to prevent damage to the power grid caused by electromagnetic pulse (EMP). The EMP arrestor will comprise diodes fabricated from the semiconductor gallium nitride (GaN), capable of responding on the nanosecond timescale required to protect the grid against EMP threats. The arrestor will be capable of blocking 20kV, enabling a single device to protect distribution-level equipment on the grid. The team will focus on GaN crystal growth and device design to achieve the 20kV performance target. In addition, the team will create a pilot production line to serve as a model for eventual commercial production.

Other OPEN+ Kilovolt Devices awards include:

GE Global Research - Niskayuna, NY

Advanced Medium Voltage SiC-SJ FETs with Ultra-Low On-Resistance - $3,090,746

GE Global Research will develop a device architecture for the world's first high-voltage silicon carbide (SiC) super junction (SJ) field-effect transistors. These devices will provide highly efficient power conversion (such as from direct to alternating current) in medium voltage applications, including renewables like solar and wind power, as well as transportation. The transistors will scale to high voltage while offering up to 10-times lower losses compared to commercial silicon-based transistors available today.

Ohio State University - Columbus, OH

GaN MOCVD Growth on Native Substrates for High Voltage (15-20kV) Vertical Power Devices - $2,211,712

The Ohio State University will develop gallium nitride (GaN) semiconductor materials suitable for high voltage (15-20kV) power control and conversion. The team will develop a unique method to grow thick GaN films with low background impurity contamination, necessary to allow high voltage operation with high efficiency. The thick GaN layers will be deposited on high-quality bulk GaN base materials with reduced defects, critical to depositing high-quality GaN films on top, and perform high-voltage device design, fabrication, and testing to provide feedback for further GaN material growth and optimization.

Virginia Tech - Blacksburg, VA

20-kV GaN Switch Technology Demonstrated in High-Efficiency Medium-Voltage Building Block - $3,000,000

Virginia Tech will accelerate deployment of power electronics into grid-scale energy applications by developing 20kV gallium nitride devices integrated into a medium-voltage power module. For the GaN power devices, high quality substrates and innovative growth techniques will be used to reduce the background impurity contamination in the thick layers needed to block 20kV. The power module will be fabricated using three-dimensional (3D) packaging for improved thermal management and high power density at 20kV. The power module will enable the full potential of high-voltage, high-temperature, and fast-switching GaN devices in medium-voltage power converters for use in renewable energy grid-level applications and transportation.

A complete list of BREAKERS awards can be found here.