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Obama awards ABB $2.1 million for WBG research

Power electronics innovator's ABB's main role in a newly announced consortium is performance and reliability testing of materials in converter applications

President Obama last week announced that an eighteen company coalition based at N.C. State University, in Raleigh, had been selected for a $140 million manufacturing hub for wide band gap (WBG) semiconductors.

This team beat several competitors, including a group in New York that was anchored by General Electric.

ABB says its credentials in power electronics and related research contributed a lot to this team being chosen. The firm is an employer of 30,000 people in North America, has its North American headquarters, global Power R&D Research Centre and regional power divisions in the Raleigh area.

ABB is the largest manufacturer of power electronics in the group which includes brand names like Toshiba and Cree, as well as several start-up companies and seven universities and government labs.

The scope of this manufacturing hub is technically complex and potentially touches a wide range of products. To help makes sense of it all, Greg Scheu, President and CEO of ABB Inc. and its new head of North American operationsmade a statement below.

Silicon Valley to Wide-Bandgap Valley? 

Semiconductor manufacturing R&D hub promises new products and new industries.

ABB is a global pioneer in wide-bandgap semiconductors research, dating back to our widely praised breakthroughs in SiC research in the 1990s. 

ABB has been following closely the development of wideband gap semiconductors because we have a wide array of products that employ power electronics as an essential ingredient.

These include solar- and wind-power inverters and converters; low- and medium-voltage drives for propulsion, pumping and compression for such things as ship propulsion and oil and gas pumping; industrial motors; electric car charging; and high-voltage direct current (HVDC) converters.

The promise here is for new semiconductor materials to be used for everything from smart phones to smart grids. A greater potential for renewable energy can be unleashed when we make these semiconductors and products reliable, especially at high voltages, and make them cost-effective. To me, that is the challenge the president issued to American business on January, 15, 2014.

My views and predictions

This $140 million manufacturing hub in Raleigh - combining eighteen companies and many universities and labs - has the potential to fast-forward development of some products by at least a decade. We expect that consumers will start to see some low-voltage products, like residential solar, coming out the quickest and within five years. 

The high-power products like industrial motors and drives and hog-voltage gear will take a few more years to come to market, mainly due to the rigorous reliability testing requirements of the electric utility industry.

I see it this way: The president asked industry to work together and see where we can replace silicon with other semiconductor materials to reduce energy loss - meaning huge energy efficiency - for equipment that can handle higher voltages, higher temperatures and higher frequencies. 

To me, this is the goal. And this is where the imagination takes off. For example, can we cut electric consumption of industrial motors - one of largest uses of power - in half? Can wind and solar converters and inverters become more affordable? Can we make car chargers and data centre power supplies more compact? We are talking about new products, new applications and possibly new industries.

ABB is positioned to lead the way here because we make power semiconductors and we make the power electronics for many of these applications today. They include:

-           Converters used in industrial motors and drives.  We lead this global market, and the largest U.S. industrial motor maker, Baldor Electric, is an ABB company;

-           Efficient solar inverters to reduce power loss, including products from Power One, another ABB company;

-           High-voltage products, such as high voltage DC (HVDC) equipment; and

-           Emerging low- voltage applications, such as electric vehicle technology and solar micro-inverters and power supplies.

These are just the immediate areas that relate to ABB’s work, but WGB materials can also improve lighting, satellites, electric cars and other applications.

ABB manufactures power electronics inverters and converters in New Berlin, Wisconsin, Fort Smith, Arkansas, Richmond, Virginia, and Phoenix, Arizona, for wind, solar, power supplies and industrial motor applications. The ABB family of companies - including Baldor and Thomas & Betts - have dozens of other manufacturing facilities for motors and low-voltage products that work with these materials.

Although ABB is evaluating and researching uses, it does not currently use wide-bandgap semiconductors in its products.

ABB knows power electronics technologies, and our Corporate Research Centre - also located on the North Carolina State University campus -- has led the way in R&D. This is one of seven global R&D centres ABB has, and we invest more than $1 billion each year in worldwide R&D.

ABB's role in the hub

ABB is receiving $2.1 million of the grant for the federal manufacturing hub project, and we will contribute at least $2.5 million over five years. ABB's main role in the consortium is performance and reliability testing of materials in converter applications.

ABB, with 150,000 employees, is a global leader in electric power engineering and industrial automation. We employ 700 in Cary and Raleigh, N.C., 2,000 in North Carolina and more than 20,000 in the United States. We employ 30,000 in North America.

The consortium consists of 18 companies: ABB, APEI, Avogy, Cree, Delphi, Delta Products, DfR Solutions, Gridbridge, Hesse Mechantronics, II-VI, IQE, John Deere, Monolith Semiconductor, RF Micro Devices, Toshiba International, Transphorm, USCi and Vacon. 

The hub is located at N.C. State, and the seven universities and labs taking part are N.C. State University, Arizona State University, Florida State University, University of California at Santa Barbara, Virginia Polytechnic Institute, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.

This will be an unfolding story, and we will provide periodic updates on our progress.
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