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ARPA-E to award up to $20M in new CIRCUITS program for redesigned WBG power electronics

The Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy (ARPA-E) will award up to $20 million to projects under the new Creating Innovative and Reliable Circuits Using Inventive Topologies and Semi Conductors (CIRCUITS) program (DE-FOA-0001727). CIRCUITS seeks to accelerate the development and deployment of a new class of efficient, lightweight, and reliable power converters based on wide bandgap (WBG) semiconductors through transformational system-level advances that enable effective operation at high switching frequency, high temperature, and low loss.

ARPA-E is also awarding up to $10M in a companion SBIR/STTR FOA for CIRCUITS (DE-FOA-0001736). The submission deadline for concept papers is 20 February 2017.

Previous efforts by ARPA-E and others have primarily focused on WBG material and device development without focused consideration and redesign of the circuit topology. Such solutions do not fully exploit the potential performance improvements enabled by this new class of power semiconductor devices, according to the agency.

Areas of particular interest for the CIRCUITS program include novel circuit topologies, advanced control and drive electronics, and innovative packaging. These could catalyze the adoption of higher performance power converters in various critical applications (motor drives, automotive, power supplies, data centers, aerospace, ship propulsion, rail, distributed energy, and the grid) that offer significant direct and indirect energy savings and emissions reductions across electricity generation, transmission and distribution, and load-side consumption.

Most current power electronics utilize silicon power semiconductors that are slower, less energy efficient, and more constrained in operating temperatures than devices fabricated from WBG semiconductors, such as SiC and GaN, due to fundamental differences in material properties.

High breakdown electric fields, low conduction losses, and short carrier lifetimes mean that WBG materials can achieve the same blocking voltage and on-resistance with a smaller footprint and at much higher frequency than a comparable Si device. The low intrinsic carrier concentration of WBG materials (ni ≤ ~10-9 cm-3) enables robust high- temperature performance due to low leakage currents at elevated temperatures.

WBG semiconductors therefore provide a pathway to overcome the fundamental performance tradeoffs between blocking voltage, on-resistance, and switching frequency inherent to Si devices, enabling design of faster, more efficient, lighter, and smaller power converters with reduced cooling requirements.

Much progress has been made on WBG-based power switches over the past decade; ARPA-E’s Agile Delivery of Electrical Power Technologies (ADEPT) program, initiated in 2010, funded several teams to develop new WBG devices and demonstrate their efficacy in system demonstrations. (Earlier post.)

The ADEPT program successes were significant in advancing commercial applications of SiC and GaN devices. However, SiC and GaN device technologies have remained immature relative to Si and currently carry a substantial cost premium, limiting their widespread adoption.

ADEPT’s successor program, Strategies for Wide Bandgap, Inexpensive Transistors for Controlling High-Efficiency Systems (SWITCHES) (earlier post), launched in 2013 and was designed to address key materials fabrication and architecture issues that drive costs for SiC and GaN devices, as well as evaluate early stage WBG power semiconductors such as diamond.

The goal was to enable the development of high voltage (>1200 V), high current (100 A) single die power semiconductor devices that, upon ultimately reaching scale, would have the potential to reach functional cost parity with silicon power transistors while also offering breakthrough relative circuit performance (low losses, high switching frequencies, and high temperature operation).

These transformational technologies would reduce the barriers to ubiquitous deployment of low-loss WBG power semiconductor devices in stationary and transportation energy applications. One key target for the SWITCHES program is for WBG packaged devices to demonstrate a manufacturing cost of 0.1 $/A at 100A and 1200V, at which point they would be competitive with the best silicon IGBT devices in the same class (with an order of magnitude faster switching speeds).

To a large extent, previous R&D efforts have focused on WBG material and device development where advanced WBG power semiconductors, such as SiC and GaN, would be substituted for silicon, but mostly without focused consideration and redesign of the circuit topology. Direct replacement of Si devices by WBG semiconductors limits the potential improvements in power electronic performance metrics. Thus, there is now an opportunity to build on the successes from earlier programs and aim for both higher performance, as well as increased market penetration of these particularly promising technologies.

—DE-FOA-0001727

CIRCUITS has two main objectives:

  1. To fund transformational advances in next-generation advanced converter circuit topologies (building blocks) for use in power electronics systems. These converters should exhibit higher efficiency, more reliability, reduced size and weight, and lower cost relative to the current state of the art.

  2. To fund specific grand technical challenges in application areas covering a broad range of power electronics disciplines, including, but not limited to: electric motor driven systems, automotive (electric and hybrid electric vehicles), electric vehicle chargers, high-performance computing and data centers, power supplies, solar inverters, wind-electric systems, high/medium voltage transmission/distribution, grid applications, power conversion for grid storage, rail/ship propulsion, monolithic power processing, robotic actuators, turbo-lifts, solid-state circuit breakers, power electronics interacting with the grid, and emerging new applications not yet categorized.

ARPA-E is considering two categories of innovation:

  • Category 1 is designated for advances in general converter systems and seeks to develop novel circuit topologies, control and drive electronics, packaging techniques, thermal management strategies, and electromagnetic compliance solutions for a universal converter (A/D C, A/D C) that is ≥ 10 kW and ≥ 600 V. ARPA-E expects that the proposed solution will meet or exceed the key targets in mass-specific and volumetric power densities and efficiency (or Pout/Ploss) at all practical load levels. Furthermore, it is expected that the proposed solutions will be fully contained in a rectangular enclosure and will be designed to operate reliably under a relevant load profile.

  • Category 2 addresses application specific architectures; solutions are not limited to a single converter box. Submissions must present grand technical challenges metrics that are expected to exceed the state-of-the-art (SOA) in one or more specific areas of power electronics. Areas of interest include but are not limited to: electric motor driven systems, automotive (electric and hybrid electric vehicles), electric vehicle chargers, high-performance computing and data centers, power supplies, solar inverters, wind-electric systems, high/medium voltage transmission/distribution, power electronics enabling smart grid applications, power conversion for grid storage, rail/ship propulsion, monolithic power processing, robotic actuators, multi-axis turbo-lifts, solid-state circuit breakers, and emerging new applications not yet categorized. Whether a concept is transformational or incremental will be judged based on the metrics proposed, energy impact of the solution, and whether the solution has a chance of follow-on funding for early adoption commensurate with the application and specific industry (e.g., product cycles are much shorter and adoption much faster in consumer electronics versus automotive applications).

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