Building the Future: PowerAmerica’s Education and Workforce Programs Give Students the Tools They Need for Career Success

A group of students huddled around tables in a lab at N.C. State University one hot summer day in late July, peering through plastic goggles as they soldered components onto printed circuit boards. The finished boards would operate as power converters. Through the exercise, they were getting a crash course in wide bandgap power electronics, specifically, how silicon carbide and gallium nitride – two compounds that enable power electronics to operate highly efficiently – stacked up against silicon, which is the standard, less efficient material widely used in power electronics today.

At the end of the exercise, students tested their boards with oscilloscopes, which display electric currents on a screen, and multi-meters, which measure them. “As you can see, the gallium nitride-based power converter operates at higher frequencies and efficiencies,” said lab instructor and PhD student Alireza Dayerizadeh. The students looked on, nodding their head in agreement. You could practically see the wheels of their brain turning as the knowledge sunk in.

Lab exercises such as these are just one component of the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU), offered by PowerAmerica for 10 weeks each summer. The goal? To get students familiar with power electronics  – with a focus on wide bandgap, the backbone of PowerAmerica’s mission. The institute strives to accelerate the development and adoption of these highly efficient power electronics systems, thus saving energy on a large scale and driving a stronger advanced manufacturing industry in the U.S. Getting the next generation of workers prepped to lead this charge is a vital part of fulfilling this goal.

 

High school students Christian Palmer (left) and Justin Howard (right) solder during a lab on wide bandgap power electronics.

The REU program is unique in that it offers a crash course in a variety of skills not necessarily obtained in a traditional classroom. It’s also unique in the students it attracts. The program pulls not just from four-year schools, but from community colleges in the surrounding region – reaching students who wouldn’t otherwise have access to the research and labs at a large, well-funded research institution like N.C. State University, where the program is held and where PowerAmerica is based. For six weeks, REU students are also joined by high school students and teachers from surrounding counties – the “pre-college” component of PowerAmerica’s summer education programs. This summer, 20 undergraduates, high school students and teachers participated.

PowerAmerica also offers an additional program – the Undergraduate Research Scholars Program (UGRS) – that runs through the academic year. Students come from partner universities (PowerAmerica has 14 nationally) and are assigned to a Power-America funded university project.

Not all the students are entering the electrical engineering field, either. This summer’s class included students pursuing degrees in mechanical, computer science and aerospace engineering. The takeaway is that knowledge in power electronics is useful to a variety of research fields, and the diverse backgrounds only add to the program, said Pam Carpenter, PowerAmerica’s Director of Education and Workforce Development.

“There are so many different skillsets coming together that it sets the students up for success, and also helps PowerAmerica’s academic researchers – it’s a win win for everyone,” Carpenter said.

The course content for all programs is similar, although UGRS is administered remotely. In addition to weekly labs – featuring a wide variety of topics, from electric vehicles to wide bandgap to circuits to coding, as well as software like SolidWorks and MatLab –  students attend sessions on skills they may or may not have been taught in a classroom, like how to communicate their research and research ethics.

Sean Clark, a Wake Tech student who will transfer into N.C. State’s aerospace engineering undergraduate program this fall, applied for the program as a way to become more comfortable with electronics, hardware and wide bandgap. “Everything overlaps, and I thought it was a great opportunity to learn more about all of them,” he said. Clark said learning the ins and outs of software such as Simulink and MATLAB was probably the most beneficial part of the program, as well as learning presentation skills and how to effectively pitch his work.

Instructor Ali Dayerizadeh shows Mark Nations, a student in PowerAmerica’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program, how to test his circuit board to learn about the efficiencies of gallium nitride.

Hands-On Research

Perhaps the most significant component of the curriculum for many students is getting assigned to assist with a project funded by either PowerAmerica or the FREEDM Systems Center, another power electronics and power systems engineering research center research institute based at N.C. State (PowerAmerica and FREEDM merged their Education and Workforce programs in 2017).

Undergraduate classes are often heavy on theory –  which is a critical component to any discipline – but adding the research experience helps students apply the theory in a research environment.  said Carpenter, the EWD program director. Participating in hands-on research with a team – including the project principal investigator, a graduate mentor and other students – helps the students learn skills like collaboration, teamwork, leadership and project management. It also gives them a frame of reference for other skills they learn in the program, like communicating their subject matter.

“Research is often messy and ill-defined, so having a support system in place – like the type offered by our summer program – is significant to setting the student up for success,” Carpenter said. What she means is that the research process can involve multiple failures and lots of experimentation, with a good bit of problem solving and critical thinking along the way – challenges that the students learn to confront effectively by learning from a more experienced team, as well as each other.

Cristian Melara, a student in N.C. State’s College of Electrical and Computer Engineering, studied more affordable ways to manufacture silicon carbide. He teamed up with PowerAmerica researcher Dr. Jay Baliga, a professor at N.C. State who has designed a silicon carbide wafer production process being utilized at the X-FAB Foundry in Lubbock, Texas. Over the summer, Melara tested the wafers being manufactured at X-FAB to see how well the process is working, cataloguing data to help with future wafer production. Working with a researcher who is pioneering the next generation of power electronics, and actually having a hand in testing his product, was invaluable, Melara said.

“The more I went through this program, the more I really came to believe and understand that silicon carbide has the ability to revolutionize power electronics, and technology across the board. It’s been a great experience,” Melara said.

Gregorio Sanford, a military veteran and former commercial diver who learned about the REU program when Dr. Carpenter, the program director, came to his class at Wake Tech Community College to encourage students to apply. He gained opportunities from the program that will be a valuable asset to his career down the road, namely the chance to submit a paper to the Advanced Power Electronics Power Conference on his project, dynamic wireless power transfer for industrial applications.

“It’s not every day that an undergraduate student gets an opportunity to submit, and be the lead author on, a scholarly article,” Sanford said.

Providing new opportunities for students that they can’t get elsewhere is a major goal of the program, said Megan Morin, Carpenter’s graduate assistant. “At the end, students will have built something, worked with something or done something they’ve never done before.”

Summer program student Gregorio Sanford stands in front of his poster explaining his research on a dynamic wireless power transfer system. 

Program Successes + Looking Ahead

Students leave the programs with a heightened understanding of power electronics, which is documented in exit surveys conducted by Carpenter and her team. For example, they saw a 30% improvement in the scores of students – both undergraduate and high school, as well as teachers – who were asked, “What is a wide bandgap semiconductor?”

Morin is able to point to other program successes, too. “We’re seeing students transfer in from community college to a four-year school, as well as a higher interest in graduate school after this program. We’re seeing increased confidence, and the ability to speak effectively about their research.”

Back in the early ‘00s, the National Academy of Engineering defined the skills that would be needed for an engineer in 2020 to be successful. These include thinking outside the box, being creative, knowing how to communicate their work, and being able to adapt to the unexpected.

Carpenter cites this standard when she talks about the goals for PowerAmerica’s education and workforce program, and the importance of offering something students can’t get elsewhere to equip them for jobs in power electronics and other advanced manufacturing fields. “It’s important for our program to have the best, emerging practices for students preparing to be engineers,” she said.

It’s also important to include everyone, Carpenter said. A quarter of this year’s summer program students came from community colleges, and nearly half were from underrepresented populations. Carpenter would like to increase those numbers.

In addition, Carpenter sees the programs as a way to introduce students to a career path in manufacturing they may not have seriously considered before.

“Interest in advanced manufacturing is an issue nationally, because the manufacturing that these students’ parents and grandparents knew went away. So it’s about changing the equation and building awareness and knowledge about the opportunities that are out there now,” Carpenter said.

Pam Carpenter (front middle, left) and Megan Morin (front middle, right) with their class of summer program students.

PowerAmerica Issues Request for Information (RFI) to Help Accelerate Adoption of Wide Bandgap Technologies

The PowerAmerica Institute at N.C. State University, a member of Manufacturing USA, is seeking public input (RFI) on initiatives to accelerate the large-scale adoption of silicon carbide and gallium nitride technology in power electronic systems in a wide range of industries.

Responses are due by 5 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 31.

The information collected will assist PowerAmerica in developing a specific request for project proposals from industry for possible funding.

View the RFI and give your comments here.

PowerAmerica Funds New Projects to Advance Wide Bandgap Technology in U.S.

The PowerAmerica Institute at N.C. State University, a member of Manufacturing USA, recently awarded funding to six new member projects that will enhance wide bandgap technologies in the United States. In addition, PowerAmerica awarded funding for 20 projects to be led by existing members for a total of $20 million in project funding for this cycle. A detailed list of all projects with descriptions is available online.

“These projects are instrumental in fulfilling PowerAmerica’s mission of accelerating the adoption of wide bandgap technologies into power electronics systems. To date, the institute has funded scores of projects that have contributed to the development of more efficient power electronics, which will benefit a range of applications – from electric vehicles to data centers,” said PowerAmerica Deputy Executive Director and CTO Victor Veliadis.

The new member projects receiving funding are:

 

Module Development and Manufacturing

Design and Manufacturing of Advanced, Reliable and Wide Bandgap Power Modules

GE Aviation Systems + National Renewable Energy Laboratory

GE and NREL will work together to design and produce advanced wide bandgap power modules made with silicon carbide and gallium nitride. The goal of this project is to enable true engine coolant temperature-grade equipment which is required to support next generation defense systems as well as commercial transportation, wind and solar, while reducing overall system costs.

 

Commercialization Applications

Dual-Inductor Hybrid Converter for Direct 48V to sub-1V PoL DC-DC Module

University of Colorado, Boulder

A team at UC Boulder will design and implement a GaN-based, novel converter

with an increased density of 10 times of converters currently on the market, with up to three times lower power loss. The converter will have fewer components, simpler implementation and lower cost. It can be used for power delivery to data centers, cellular base stations, portable applications, and defense systems.

Introduction of Devices for Solid-State Circuit Breaking at the Medium Voltage Level

University of North Carolina, Charlotte

The team at UNCC will test a functioning prototype of a medium voltage (3.3 kv) SiC solid-state circuit breaker. The use of silicon carbide in the product will enable fast turn-off capability in the microsecond range or better, and superior efficiency compared to silicon. Market segments to be targeted include utility operators of the electricity distribution network.

600V GaN Bi-directional Switch

Infineon

Infineon will develop a low-cost, 600V bidirectional 70mOhm switch based on the company’s CoolGaN HEMT technology, capitalizing on the unique bidirectional nature of the GaN HEMT. The project will validate both the dual gate concept and a solution for substrate voltage stabilization, and will make the GaN switch more economically attractive compared to the standard silicon devices commonly used today.

 

Education and Workforce Development

Graduate Wide Bandgap Semiconductor Power Device Lab

North Carolina State University

A team at NCSU will establish a graduate laboratory course focused entirely on the design, fabrication, and characterization of wide bandgap power devices, and disseminate the curriculum to PowerAmerica members to accelerate the education of new engineers.

Power Electronics Teaching Lab Incorporating Wide Bandgap Switches and Circuits

University of North Carolina, Charlotte

Researchers at UNCC will develop a modular, multi-function, educational high-frequency power electronics board with plug and play capability. The new board will give students the flexibility to perform different power electronics lab sessions and train undergraduate students as wide bandgap power electronics engineers through hands-on experience and practical knowledge of WBG semiconductors in power electronics applications.

Vote for Al Hefner, PowerAmerica’s DOE Technology Manager

Dr. Allen Hefner was selected as a Finalist for the 2018 Service to America Medal in the Career Achievement category. The Service to America Medals (The “Sammies”), also known as the “Oscars” of government service, are a highly respected honor with a vigorous selection process. You can vote for Al as “People’s Choice” here until July 9, 2018.

PowerAmerica Program Manager Rogelio Sullivan Honored with Award

We want to extend a huge congratulations to Rogelio Sullivan, PowerAmerica’s Program Manager, who recently received the N.C. State Office of Research, Innovation and Economic Development Award for Excellence for Customer Service. Rogelio is an integral part of what keeps PowerAmerica running smoothly, managing numerous projects each budget period and communicating with principal investigators to meet DOE reporting requirements. In the words of one our members, Ty McNutt of Wolfspeed-Fayetteville, “Rogelio keeps the innovators working in PowerAmerica on track and on time, coordinating hundreds of people for events, reviews, and reporting. This critical function enables industry partners to focus on the development of more innovative power electronics products and systems.” Thanks for all you do, Rogelio!

PowerAmerica Hosts Cleantech Innovators

PowerAmerica had the honor of hosting a cohort of startup companies (including PowerAmerica member Atom Power!) that are part of the Joules Accelerator program, based in Charlotte, NC and funded in part by Duke Energy. The program works to catalyze business development opportunities for exceptional energy entrepreneurs. The event, co-hosted with the Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster, featured pitches from each cohort member on their innovative technologies, ranging from an all-electric box truck to data sensors to analytics for power systems. Learn more about the projects here.

Dr. Baliga of NCSU to Present on SiC Power MOSFET Breakthroughs During PowerAmerica Technical Webinar Series May 1

Dr. Jay Baliga of N.C. State University will give a talk titled  “Breakthroughs in SiC Power MOSFET Technology Sponsored by PowerAmerica” during the institute’s monthly technical webinar series from noon to 1 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, May 2.

Biography
Dr. Baliga is the creator of the patented PRESiCE process, funded in part by PowerAmerica, and is recognized as a leading expert on power semiconductor devices. He is the inventor of the IGBT, which he commercialized at GE in the 1980s; and is considered the father of wide bandgap semiconductor power devices due to his accomplishments in the field. Read his full biography here.

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Register Today for PEDG 2018 in Charlotte, NC

The IEEE 9th International Symposium on Power Electronics for Distributed Generation (PEDG-18), will be hosted by UNC Charlotte’s Energy Production and Infrastructure Center (EPIC) in Charlotte NC, June 25 -28, 2018. PEDG 2018 will provide a venue for power electronics experts to present the results of their cutting-edge research and development and learn what is in store for the future of the electric power grid, smart power converters and power electronic devices, relevant to power systems.

Home to some of the largest and most diverse energy-related companies and more than 30,000 energy industry professionals, Charlotte has been dubbed the “New Energy Capital” of North America.

The conference will feature industry-focused keynote and invited speakers, panel sessions, tutorials and regular technical sessions on theory, analysis, design, development, testing, deployment and impact of power electronics for distributed generation, energy storage, and sustainable energy resources. Visit the PEDG 2018 website to learn more about the conference theme and tracks.

All full papers presented at PEDG 2018 will appear on IEEE Xplore and will be listed in Ei Compendex. Three papers will be awarded “Best Paper,” as selected from the paper submissions.

Register for the conference here, and see this flyer for more details.

 

PowerAmerica Monthly Technical Webinar Series April 4 with Dr. Woongje Sung

Dr. Woongje Sung of the State University of New York Polytechnic Institute (SUNY Poly) will speak about his PowerAmerica-funded project to develop SiC MOSFET and JBS diodes during PowerAmerica’s monthly technical webinar series from noon to 1 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, April 4. Sung’s presentation is titled, “Recent Advances in SiC MOSFET Technology.”

Biography
Dr. Sung received his PhD in Electrical and Computer Engineering from N.C. State University in 2011. He has experience in a number of industrial settings including a startup company, a semiconductor foundry (Dongbu Hitek), and a mature multi-national company (Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology). He is a founding member of PowerAmerica, where he has been contributing to establishing the baseline process of SiC MOSFETs and diodes. In 2016, he joined SUNY Poly’s Colleges of Nanoscale Science and Engineering as an Associate Professor.

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National Defense University Visits PowerAmerica

PowerAmerica recently welcomed students from the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., to PowerAmerica for two days of tours and panel discussions. The groups met with local industry leaders, visited local businesses in the manufacturing and electronics realm, and toured labs around the campus of N.C. State University. The groups focus on electronics and advanced manufacturing specifically, making PowerAmerica – and the surrounding ecosystem of the Research Triangle and North Carolina – a natural fit for their program.

“PowerAmerica provides an example of how to create a successful public-private partnership. Anchored inside N.C. State University, the institute is a unique model of collaboration between a major research university, industry and state government that connects people, ideas and technology to solve advanced manufacturing challenges that ultimately enhance economic competitiveness and strengthen national security,” said Capt. Frank Futcher, an NDU faculty member.