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Public Investments Spurring Breakthroughs in Power Electronics

Transphorm Power Electronics

The use of power electronics is extensively involved in the clean tech industry. Power electronics control and transform electric energy from the large-scale transmission level to the conventional consumer electronics level. While this conversion process does not receive as much attention as solar panels or wind turbines when referring to clean energy innovation, power electronics technologies are central to everything from transferring energy from intermittent renewable sources, to energy storage, to re-charging electrical vehicles quickly and safely. Significant innovations in these technologies are largely necessary for future development of next-generation electrified transportation systems and smart energy distribution.

To address this need, the federal government – through DOE’s office for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) and the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E), in collaboration with the National Labs – is focusing specifically on the capabilities of power electronics in connection with increasing the efficiency of hybrid-electric and all-electric vehicles.

Improvements in the size, reliability, and capacity of power electronics components including capacitors, inverters, and converters, have implications for decreasing electric vehicle charging times and reducing costs to both the producer and the consumer. These steps are all necessary to make electric vehicles functionally competitive in the marketplace with conventional vehicles. These federal government initiatives are being driven by EERE’s Advanced Power Electronics and Electric Motor (APEEM) project as well as ARPA-E’s Agile Delivery of Electrical Power Technology (ADEPT) program.

By pursuing similar end-goals of encouraging research, development, and commercialization of advanced power electronics for electric vehicle applications in order to see more electric vehicles on the road in the future, the programs complement each other in their approach to addressing the innovation process. APEEM’s approach incorporates a process of fundamental research through the National Labs and technology deployment through industry partnerships.

Funding for ARPA-E and EERE power electronics programs, with ARRA funds and appropriations for FY2009, FY2010, FY2011, and FY2012. Data accessed using the Energy Innovation Tracker -

The ADEPT program at ARPA-E is also building interest and investment from the private sector to accelerate the development and commercialization of key power electronic technologies through 14 individual projects – five of these are specifically geared towards improving electric vehicle efficiency and capability. One of the ADEPT projects, run through Case Western Reserve University, is creating capacitors for electronic devices from alternative materials that will allow up to 300% more energy storage.

Another project through the Arkansas Power Electronics Initiative (APEI) is developing transistors with the ability to draw more power from the grid more efficiently, speeding up the process of charging electric vehicles, and the transistors will be 10 times smaller than existing models.  The APEI project is particular interesting because it is one of a number of Arkansas-based clean technology businesses and institutions which together comprise one of the country’s fastest growing clean energy regional clusters.  In fact, APEI is receiving a new SBIR grant – which is being announced today as part of National Small Business Week by the Department of Energy – to further technology development and complete its design to bring to market.  APEI’s R&D collaboration with Sandia National Lab and others offer a promising example of public investments leading to energy technology breakthroughs.

Because power electronics play such a widespread role in the energy economy, both in transforming transportation systems and rethinking power generation, technology advancements in the field are sometimes overlooked, but are no less integral to addressing the nation’s climate and energy challenges.

Originally posted on the Energy Innovation Tracker, a database capturing U.S. energy innovation R&D spending since 2009.  For additional analysis, keep an eye on the Tracker’s blog and follow the Tracker on Twitter: @energyrdtracker.

Image: Flickr – Energy Department.  Transistor developed by ARPA-E grantee Transphorm at ARPA-E 2012 Energy Innovation Summit

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