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Improved Power Control in the Palm of Your Hand

November 7, 2011 - 2:11pm


Silicon carbide thyristors, developed through a partnership between the Energy Department's Sandia National Lab and GeneSiC Semiconductor, are key to utility-scale power conversion. Learn more about this technology, which won a 2011 R&D 100 award.

The National Academy of Engineering has called widespread electrification the greatest engineering feat of the 20th century. In the last century, innovations in power control have allowed the electric system to grow nationwide, reliably delivering the 3.7 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity consumed by over 300 million Americans in 2010. 

Now, thanks to a partnership between the Energy Department’s Sandia National Laboratory (SNL) and GeneSiC Semiconductor, the next generation of control technology has entered the market. The device is a new kind of thyristor – an electronic switch – with the potential to change the landscape for power control and conversion.

Most of us never see them, but some version of a thyristor exists anywhere that electricity needs to be modified. The devices act like a gate to control the flow of electricity, making them fundamental components of everything from cars and trains to cell phones. Thyristors designed to handle high voltages are essential for the smooth operation of our electric system. These thyristors have long been based on silicon, but have had difficulties efficiently handling the increasing electricity demands of modern life.

To address this problem, GeneSiC chose to base their thyristor on silicon carbide (SiC), which can operate at much higher temperatures than silicon. This allows the device to handle 10 times the voltage, and switch 100 times faster, than its silicon-based competition. In an industry that operates at the sub-second level, these improvements have broad implications for the future.

According to R&D Magazine, the device is the first of its kind to reach the commercial market, an achievement the magazine recognized by presenting a prestigious R&D 100 award to the development team of GeneSIC, Sandia Lab and the Department's Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability (OE). This award recognizes the 100 most innovative high technology products world-wide every year.

OE’s energy storage program partnered with GeneSiC through Sandia Lab on the development of the device in 2007, when early research for the project was awarded funding through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. Additional funding to develop the technology for grid-scale applications was provided through Sandia Lab by OE, and led to GeneSiC’s Ultra-High Voltage SiC Thyristor, which entered the commercial market last year.

But commercialization isn’t the end of GeneSiC’s relationship with the Energy Department. The Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E) recently entered into a cooperative agreement with the company to further increase the performance of the SiC thyristor. 

The success of the GeneSiC thyristor is just one of the many technologies developed through close collaboration between the private sector, the Energy Department’s national laboratories, and program offices. Such relationships will continue to produce innovations that make our lives easier for years to come.

For more information please visit the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability's website.

You can find more information on this and the 35 other Energy Department 2011 R&D 100 awards here.