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COE to share new NSF ERC in power electronics

With $500,000 funding per year for five years, the College of Engineering will join Virginia Tech, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, North Carolina A&T State University, and the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez in a new National Science Foundation (NSF) Engineering Research Center for power electronics. As a whole, NSF will fund the consortium with $2 million in the first year with extensions possible for an additional five years.

Virginia Tech's Virginia Power Electronics Center (VPEC), directed by electrical engineering Professor Fred Lee, submitted the ERC proposal on behalf of the five universities. The new Center for Power Electronics Systems (C-PES) vision is to "make the U.S. the most efficient user of electrical energy in the world," Lee says. Lee predicted the center's work in the next 10 years would result in a 30 percent savings in electric power consumption.

Power electronic equipment sales currently exceed $60 billion annually. This includes motor drives for heat pumps, air conditioners, and other industrial and residential applications. Microelectronics has been integrated with power electronics for smart and efficient control of robotic motor drives used in factory automation but has not found its way into high volume applications.

The C-PES strategy will be to focus its efforts on this higher volume power electronics for domestic and industrial applications, such as packaged drives for heating, ventilation, air-conditioning and refrigeration; hybrid electric vehicles, and high performance adjustable speed drives for industrial automation, distributed power supply systems for computer and telecommunication equipment; as well as ultra-low voltage and high speed Very Large Scale Integrated (VLSI) circuits, and future generations of processors.

At Madison, Electrical and Computer Engineering Professors Robert D. Lorenz and Thomas A. Lipo, along with new faculty member Thomas Jahns, will focus on developing hardware for high-performance industrial drives and variable speed air-conditioners for the home. Campus Director Lipo says the NSF funding will sponsor at least ten additional graduate students and a significant amount of new lab equipment.

The project emphasis is in building power electronics equipment into several highly visible, cost sensitive applications. The technologies to be studies would constitute a breakthrough in the cost-performance ratio. By redesigning the air conditioner, for example, the researchers hope to improve the cost-performance ratio by a factor of ten.

"The methods for doing this are well understood--the power electronics, the circuits, the motor, all of this has evolved over the years," says Lipo. "But so far we have not been able to get the price to where it is competitive. If someone has to pay 50 percent more for an air conditioner they are not going to buy it."

If the researchers can pull all of the technology together below a certain price point, Lipo says it would make financial sense for people to replace their air-conditioners with the variable speed units.

"That's the ultimate goal—to save energy," Lipo says. "If we reach certain targets many consumer and industrial products would change. It does save energy."

The air-conditioning and industrial drive projects are projected to take at least five years. After that, the team is considering a focus on electric drives for hybrid electric vehicles, or possible air-conditioning equipment for automobiles.

In general, NSF envisions that all of its ERCs will produce advances in a complex, next-generation engineered system, as well as educate the new generation of engineers to the depth and breadth needed for leadership throughout their careers in a global economy. NSF's strategy is to integrate research and education using the ERC.

NSF expects its ERCs to maintain trusted partnerships with industry in planning, research, and education. This collaboration with faculty and students in resolving generic, long-range challenges produces the knowledge base for steady advances in technology and their speedy transition to the marketplace.

The NSF commitment to the Power Electronics Consortium is for five years with a renewal possible for another five years. NSF expects the ERC to be self-sufficient through industrial support after a decade.