An engineering research group at Columbia University in New York received a $3 million grant from U.S. Department of Energy to create high-power electric switching devices with the speed and efficiency of electronic transistor circuits. The team led by electrical and biomedical engineering professor Ken Shepard — that includes members from MIT, IBM, and the thin-film component maker Veeco Instruments — is funded by an award from the Strategies for Wide-Bandgap, Inexpensive Transistors for Controlling High-Efficiency Systems or SWITCHES program in ARPA-E, the Energy Department’s research agency.
The SWITCHES program aims to develop new materials and structures for power switching equipment, the kind of equipment used to direct high volumes of electric current through power grids, data centers, and industrial machinery. Today’s technologies still use inefficient, bulky, and slow switching devices, whose power demands exceed the limits of the familiar silicon electronic transistors that revolutionized information technology.
Shepard and colleagues aim to devise a process for making gallium nitride (GaN) switching devices with the capacity to process the large power volumes, but still compatible with methods used to make silicon semiconductors. The goal of the project is to develop low-cost transistors for commercial applications that can be connected into integrated circuits.
The researchers aim to adapt an industrial process known as spalling that can transfer a gallium nitride circuit to a silicon substrate. IBM has experimented with spalling to transfer circuitry from one type of material to another, to replicate circuitry on thin films for flexible electronics.
Gallium nitride circuits have been tested since the 1990s, with applications emerging in optoelectronics — e.g., laser diodes that read Blu-ray discs — as well as telecommunications and aerospace. Other processes for depositing gallium nitride on silicon substrates are also being developed.
“We hope to construct an integrated half-bridge boost converter module at a potential production cost of less than $20,” says Shepard in a university statement. “Our success in this program will allow us to bring aspects of Moore’s Law scaling to an important market—power electronics—that has not previously seen the benefits in cost, form factor, and performance that scaling brings.”
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