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NSF funds create $12-million Engineering Research Center

By Lynn Nystrom and David Nutter

Spectrum Volume 21 Issue 01 - August 27, 1998

Following a $1.5-million pledge of assistance from Virginia's Governor James Gilmore and the acknowledged support of more than 100 industrial allies, the National Science Foundation has given its endorsement to create an Engineering Research Center (ERC) in power electronics, centered at Virginia Tech, with an initial funding of $12.35 million.
Virginia Tech's 16-year old Virginia Power Electronics Center (VPEC), directed by Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECpE) Professor Fred Lee, submitted the proposal on behalf of a consortium of five universities. The successful proposal provides the state with its first ERC.
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 said. Lee predicted the center's work in the next 10 years would result in a 30-percent savings in electric-power consumption.
"Enormous prestige is associated with an ERC; some 80 percent of the top 25 engineering programs in the country are home to one of these select centers," said F. William Stephenson, dean of Tech's College of Engineering. "Our program is clearly the premier power-electronics curriculum in the country."
Virginia's commitment of $300,000 a year for five years will be used primarily for management support, undergraduate scholarships and graduate research assistantships, and some equipment needs.
"Economic development is a cornerstone of my administration," Gilmore said, "and this center in power electronics will play a key role in developing new technologies and in contributing to the state and to the nation's overall prosperity."
Power-electronic equipment sales currently exceed $60 billion annually. This includes motor drives for heat pumps, air conditioners, and other industrial and residential applications. Micro-electronics has been integrated with power electronics for smart and efficient control of robotic motor drives used in factory automation.
The C-PES strategy will be to focus its efforts on the 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 least three recent trends have led power electronics to emerge as a profession of major importance, Lee said. First, the uncertainty of the supplies of oil and gas, as well as growing environmental concerns act as stimulants for the use of clean electrical power. Second, the efficient conversion, processing, and control of electrical power is gaining increasing priority among technologies. Third, the increasing demand for high speed, precision, reliability, and versatility in power control for a variety of technical innovations can be satisfied by power electronics.
A recent survey conducted by the national Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) indicates that power electronic loads account for more than 60 percent of the total electric power used in the U.S.
At Virginia Tech, VPEC is well known for its collaborations with industry to increase the nation's economic competitiveness in power electronics. With its proven track record, Lee and his colleague Dusan Borojevic, deputy director of C-PES and associate professor of ECpE, were easily able to persuade major corporations such as Motorola, Celestica, GM, Harris Semiconductor, Rockwell's Allen-Bradley Division, Artesyn, (formerly Zytec), and York International to serve as industrial test beds for the NSF ERC work, allowing for the easy transfer of developed technology to industry.
Some of VPEC's more widely known accomplishments include its role in developing the power-electronics building blocks (PEBB's), an approach to standardizing power-electronics components that include semi-conductor materials, circuits, controls, sensors and actuators, aiming at a significant cost and energy savings for the U.S. Navy and the nation's power-electronics industry. The Navy wants to use PEBB's in the high-power range to reduce the size, weight and expense of shipboard power systems. Virginia Tech leads a consortium of three universities conducting this work.
VPEC has also contributed to the design of the satellite power system for NASA's Mission to Planet Earth. This system monitors ozone depletion and carbon dioxide. And, they were asked to perform an independent assessment of the design and stability analysis of the power system for the Space Station Freedom.
In the ERC consortium, Virginia Tech is the lead school. Other members are the University of Wisconsin--Madison, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, North Carolina A&T State University, and the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez.
In general, NSF envisions that all of its ERC's 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 ERC's to maintain trusted partnerships with industry in planning, research, and education. This collaboration with faculty members 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.