NASA UNIT JOINS UIC'S POWER ELECTRONICS GROUP
With the aim of developing more robust electronic components for future space vehicles, NASA's Glenn Research Center today became the latest sponsor to join the University of Illinois at Chicago's Power Electronics Reliability Group. The Cleveland-based research center defines and develops advanced propulsion, power and communications technologies for application to aeronautics and space travel.
Founded in March 2000, UIC's Power Electronics Reliability Group is dedicated to improving the reliability and lowering the costs of power electronic systems. It has eight corporate sponsors, including IBM, Toshiba and Tyco Power Systems. Led by UIC electrical and computer engineering professor Krishna Shenai, the group's research focuses on how to make parts with a much lower failure risk.
The field of power electronics deals with devices needed to deliver proper amounts of electricity to components ranging from simple light bulbs to complicated automobiles and computers. Power electronics devices handle switching incoming electricity between alternating and direct current as needed and convert power levels according to ever-stricter requirements.
For example, today's typical mainframe computer is guaranteed to run a minimum of 100,000 hours continuously without failure. While that may sound impressive, Shenai says the growing demands of the information age will require future generations of equipment to be far more robust.
"What is really needed is more than 1 million hours per system," says Shenai. "Systems are now reliable more than 99.99 percent of the time. What we really need is a reliability improvement of three orders of magnitude, or 1,000 fold."
Shenai has focused on using the semiconductor silicon carbide to develop new power electronics devices. Silicon carbide is a material that was developed in the 1950s, but received little attention from the electronics field thereafter because it was so difficult to manufacture. Silicon alone has dominated the semiconductor industry since its infancy, but the projected power demands of new technologies are so high they would turn many silicon chips back into sand.
In recent years, Shenai has worked to develop silicon carbide. It is now one of the hottest materials technologies. Its promise lies in its ability to make components smaller, more robust and able to work under high power loads without overheating.
"With silicon carbide, I can switch perhaps three orders or more of power without the problem of needing extra cooling," says Shenai. "In most power systems, the problems of higher cost and weight are with cooling management. So what you want is a semiconductor which can switch very high amounts of power, but isn't destroyed in the process by high heat."
Shenai envisions small electronic parts made of silicon carbide replacing large, heat-producing components in a wide variety of products from railroad locomotives to home computers. In January, PERG-sponsor Infineon, the semiconductor branch of Siemens, introduced its first commercial silicon carbide power switch after several years in development.
Shenai says his group's work with NASA's Glenn Research Center may see fruition in future space transportation and laboratory applications.
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