R&D 100 Award Winner

On Wednesday, R&D Magazine announced the winners of the 2011 R&D 100 Awards. These awards are known as the “Oscars of Innovation.”

The annual R&D 100 Awards identify the 100 most significant, newly introduced research and development advances in multiple disciplines. Winning one of the R&D 100 Awards provides a mark of excellence known to industry, government, and academia as proof that the product is one of the most innovative ideas of the year, nationally and internationally.
– Wikipedia

Image credit: R&D Magazine website.

Not one but two new products I was involved with won the R&D 100 Awards this year!

Princeton Power Systems’ Demand Response Inverter (DRI)

The DRI was one of my projects at Princeton Power Systems (PPS), together with Mahesh Gandhi and Paul Heavener. I’d love to list all the talented engineers who worked on the project — they’re the ones who got the work done despite management’s best efforts to the contrary! — but I’m afraid they’d immediately get recruited by headhunters if I publicly listed their names. They know who they are and know how much I appreciate their hard work.

The DRI was funded under the Solar America Initiative and was one of the 4 winners of a Stage III Solar Energy Grid Integration Systems (SEGIS) commercialization contract from the DOE and Sandia Labs. PPS and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Ward Bower and his team at Sandia for their support over the past several years.

Image credit: Princeton Power Systems website

The DRI significantly simplifies the integration of solar to the grid. As I described briefly in this post and I’ll describe in more detail in an upcoming post, utility companies would much prefer to see a constant flow of power coming from a solar array. The solar array’s random output due to weather, varying cloud cover, and changing temperature make it incredibly difficult for utility companies to predict the power that will be available on the grid.

The simple solution is to add energy storage. In order to truly solve the problem of intermittancy, however, the energy storage system must be able to respond fast enough to make the power flow “seamless” when a cloud suddently casts shade on the solar array. By integrating both the solar and battery power converters into one box with an intelligent control system “blending” the power, the DRI can make the solar array “look” to the utility company like a steady power generation source.

Integrating a fourth terminal for motor/generator control provides additional benefits, such as the ability to decrease power consumption on demand. The DRI should be available as a product in the next few months, so stay tuned to the Princeton Power website for more details.

Successful Research Projects depend upon Luck and Networking

I first came across silicon carbide when I was doing some homework for a NJ Commission on Science and Technology funding grant. The Commission’s goal was to encourage collaboration between NJ universities and NJ companies, so I started looking at the research programs at various NJ schools to see if they were working on anything relevant to my work at PPS. Lo and behold, I came across Prof. Jian Zhao’s silicon carbide research at Rutgers. After a brief meeting in his office I realized that we could use his high-voltage silicon carbide thyristor research — which he had shelved several years earlier — in PPS’s AC-link power converter. AC-link and SiC thyristors by themselves were good, but combined in one product for Navy shipboard power distribution and wind and wave power conversion, they would cut energy losses by 2/3 and increase power density (reduce size) by 5-10x! Together, we would be the first to integrate silicon carbide thyristors in an actual end product, using devices developed by Prof. Zhao’s spinoff company, United Silicon Carbide.

Thus started a 3-year research program funded jointly by New Jersey, the U.S. Navy, and the Department of Energy. In particular, thanks to Steve Swindler at NAVSEA for his ongoing support of this effort.

Some time during year one, I met Jon Greene and his team at Widetronix at an SBIR conference in DC. They had an interesting technology to solve some of the reliability problems with silicon carbide, which I wrote about in this post. They introduced me to Ranbir Singh at GeneSiC Semiconductor, who was also developing a silicon carbide thyristor product.

GeneSiC Semiconductor’s 6kV Silicon Carbide (SiC) Thyristors

Ranbir and I have had a close working relationship ever since this initial introduction. I encourage anyone interested in silicon carbide to look into their products. For a small business, their technology, manufacturing, and test capabilities are quite impressive.

GeneSiC won the R&D 100 Award for its 6kV silicon carbide thyristor product, which I started integrating into a prototype AC-link power converter at PPS. There are still some hurdles to overcome, but the technology is incredibly promising.

This little device (the image below is its true size) can switch 20-50 times faster than existing silicon thyristors under voltage stresses that are 50x higher than the 120V power outlet in your home. They are sure to become the “valves” used in utility-scale power distribution equipment to control power flow on the future smart grid.

Image credit: GeneSiC Semiconductor website

Congratulations to Ranbir and his team.

Are you in-the-know with other successful technologies?

If any readers have exposure to the technology and products developed by other R&D 100 Award winners, please email me. I’d be interested to learn more about these other innovations.

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