An electric power program at the University of Arkansas can be attributed to as much as a $200 million economic impact on the world annually, a power electronics expert said. And the program looks to continue to make an impact as it grows to include a new facility.
In a recent Arkansas Research Alliance webinar, Alan Mantooth, an electrical engineering professor at the UA, explained the program’s economic impact, his outlook on power electronics, and the development of a new facility that could help companies ramp electronics production.
Mantooth, who has worked at the UA for 22 years, is part of its Power and Energy Program, or the UA Power Group. It was established about 15 years ago and has grown from four to 13 faculty and includes 110 graduate students and four departments in two colleges. The group accounts for about $10 million in research expenditures annually and collaborates with other universities and companies worldwide. In 2020, the faculty published 91 journal papers and 79 conference papers.
“You’ve heard about the Iron Age, the Stone Age,” Mantooth said. “We’re living in the silicon age. This is electronics, and it’s everywhere. You’re going to touch power electronics no less than five times when you get up in the morning to when you go back to bed.”
He expects the silicon age, or semiconductor age, to continue for at least another 30 years, with electronics driving society’s modernization. He also expects power density to continue to rise, and the UA will remain a leader in these innovations.
Other expectations include an evolving power grid, but it won’t be something that happens overnight. Mantooth said electric utilities don’t want to introduce something overnight and not have it work.
“It’s not like rebooting your laptop,” he said. “Reliability is everything. Resiliency is everything. We have to evolve. I call it evolution to revolution. And that’s what you’ll see happening between now and 2030 and 2040. It’s going to continue to evolve.”
The UA group plans to add a silicon carbide fabrication facility that will allow for the production of their own devices, Mantooth said. It will be a national facility open to the world to send designs to, he added.
“We’re starting to move on that as we speak,” he said. “This is a new and coming thing for us. I’m very excited about that.”
Mantooth said the recent semiconductor shortage shows the United States needs to onshore more semiconductor manufacturing. When supply is affected, it has a ripple effect on other industries, such as automotive, energy and medicine. He noted a recent initiative backed by President Joe Biden has shown the need for more significant investment in the U.S. semiconductor industry as many production facilities are overseas. He said the national fabrication facility that will be built in Arkansas is focused on silicon carbide, which is one material. It fills a gap in the manufacturing sector and won’t be high volume production. He explained how to bring research and development in low volume to allow large or small companies access to a prototype before ramping to high volume.
The group also developed automated tools that increased the design speed of power modules to 30 minutes from what had taken nearly four months by hand. Mantooth said this design automation allows designers to work more productively. Similar work led to the start of Lynguent, which focused on modeling tools.
“We have developed the mathematical models themselves for a lot of semiconductor devices that are used the world over,” Mantooth said. “This is why I quote something like a $5.6 billion impact on research work that we’ve had because when companies use this, they go from four months of design time to 30 minutes. I think that’s a big-time savings. That’s economic impact.
“We worked with the U.S. Department of Commerce to assess the economic impact of one of these models that are used heavily by the industry,” said Mantooth, adding that the model developed in the ’90s has been used for years and upgraded by the group. “It adds up to tens of millions of dollars a year. On the order of maybe $100 million a year to $200 million a year in impact globally.”
The group’s electronics have been used in space at the International Space Station and gas turbines that generate electricity for the power grid. The work led to the development of extreme-temperature electronics manufacturer Ozark Integrated Circuits, or Ozark IC, 10 years ago.
Continued space exploration will mean that more electronics will need to survive in extreme environments. What’s learned from the space explorations impacts lives here, Mantooth said.
He also explained the importance of security in an internet-connected world. An internet-connected coffee machine was an entry point for a hacker into a system, he said. If the systems are designed with cybersecurity in mind, they won’t be as vulnerable to cyberattacks. He said this might include “cyber-hardened” solar inverters or power routers. If electronics are correctly designed, the only enemies of electronics would be time and temperature, he added.
Mantooth said the recent cold temperatures that contributed to the grid issues in Texas comprised a resiliency issue. But if the problem were cyberattacks, the resolution wouldn’t be the temperature rising. That is an issue that the group works on, he noted.
The group recently released an electric vehicle motor drive with 90 kilowatts per liter of power. In 2014, the state-of-the-art motor drive was 9 kilowatts per liter. The U.S. Department of Energy set a benchmark of 13.4 kilowatts per liter for 2020.
“We blew past that at 90 kilowatts per liter,” Mantooth said. “We’re putting 90 kilowatts of power in 1 liter. As a result, we can only imagine the types of systems that we can build and how powerful they can be. That’s a world first.”
He foresees battery-electric being replaced by more sustainable hydrogen-electric.
“Batteries might not be the most sustainable thing for our planet in the long run,” he said. “Is it a stop-gap to help start weaning us off of as much fossil fuels? And I’m an advocate for balance. I’m not for ditching fossil fuels. But what are the other energy mechanisms where we can store and manage energy? Batteries are a part of the equation and will always be a part of the equation, but I don’t think they are the total solution.”
Mantooth, a distinguished professor in the electrical engineering department, has been a part of four startups in Arkansas: Arkansas Power Electronics International, Lynguent, Ozark Integrated Circuits and Bastazo. He’s senior past president of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Power Electronics Society, which has about 10,000 members.
The UA Power Group includes facilities and federally-funded centers of excellence, such as Grid-connected Advanced Power Electronic Systems (GRAPES), the Center for Power Optimization of Electro-Thermal Systems (POETS), Cybersecurity Center for Secure Evolvable Energy Delivery Systems (SEEDS). GRAPES, which started in 2010, is focused on inserting power electronics into the electric power grid and has collaborated with universities in Germany and South Korea on grid resiliency projects. POETS regards innovation in high-density power electronics for electric vehicles, including heavy-duty trucks and aerospace. SEEDS works to improve the security of the electric power grid. Mantooth is the executive director for GRAPES, POETS and SEEDS. He’s also the executive director for the National Center for Reliable Electric Power Transmission (NCREPT) at the UA. NCREPT allows companies to test their electronics there.
“What makes our program unique is that it’s vertically integrated,” Mantooth said. “We call it materials to systems. We work from the materials for semiconductor devices and packaging work up to the system prototyping. We’ve prototyped things that have gone inside a Toyota Prius. We’ve put things inside Caterpillar’s heavy loaders. Later this year, we’ll be flying things at the Oshkosh airshow, FAA-certified electronics that will be the actual motor-drive for hybrid-electric aircraft. We take it from the technology level all the way to the end. There’s not another program like this in America.”
The UA started both POETS and SEEDS in 2015, and SEEDS led to the spin-out company Bastazo, which was established in March 2020.