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What's The President's Project At NC State All About?

Obama at Vacon
Courtesy of Vacon

North Carolina State University was awarded a big task by The White House this week.

The land-grant institution will house a new public-private manufacturing innovation institute that will focus on getting the next generation of electronic chips and devices into the marketplace. 

President Barack Obama got the biggest applause of his speech when he made this announcement at NC State earlier this week:

"So today, after almost a year of competition, I’m pleased to announce America’s newest high-tech manufacturing hub, which is going to be focused on the next generation of power electronics, is going to be based right here in Raleigh, North Carolina," said Mr. Obama.

The Next Generation Power Electronics Innovation Institute is a $140 million dollar initiative.  It includes $70 million from the Department of Energy, the largest single grant in NC State history.

"That’s good news, that’s good news," said Mr. Obama.

Why NC State?

What’s good news is NC State already has the minds and the infrastructure in place to lead such an institute which is going to develop what are called wide bandgap semiconductors.

“I was just schooled on all of this.  I am not sure that I am fully qualified to describe the technical elements of this," said The President." Raise your hand if you know what it is.  See, we got some.”

One of the people in the audience raising his hand was NC State’s B. Jayant Baliga, a Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

“I’m considered the father of wide bandgap semiconductors for power device applications," said Baliga.

Baliga derived an equation back in 1980 which is now commonly referred to by the semiconductor industry as Baliga’s Figure of Merit.  Baliga founded the Power Semiconductor Research Center at NC State.  In 2011, President Obama awarded him the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. 

"I’ve been promoting the use of wide bandgap semiconductors now for over 30 years.  And with any technology it takes a while for it to be demonstrated to be a viable technology," said Baliga.

In other words, to reduce the defects, reduce the cost, increase the yield.

For us, it makes our products more efficient, which saves our customers money and it improves performance of our equipment as well. So we're looking forward to being able to implement that in our industrial products. -Devin Dilley

What does the technology actually do?

What wide band-gap allows engineers to do is produce devices at higher voltages, at higher temperatures and higher frequencies.  And in the long run, that uses a lot less energy – making things like cell phones to industrial motors to electric cars smaller, faster and cheaper, according to the president.

President Obama made a stop in Research Triangle Park during his visit this week at Vacon, a global leader in AC drives. 

"This is our switch gear room.  This is actually where the president came in when we greeted him," said Devin Dilley.  "This is where the power comes into the building and feeds all of our test equipment from this area.  You can hear the transformers humming."

Vacon operates in 29 countries.  This Research and Development facility is their newest office.  Dilley is the Director of R & D.  He’s glad Vacon is a part of the new consortium that will be housed at NC State.

“For us, it makes our products more efficient, which saves our customers money and it improves performance of our equipment as well.  So we’re looking forward to being able to implement that in our industrial products," said Dilley.

Vacon only has a dozen employees in RTP, but Vice President Dan Isaksson says that will change.

“We tried to think, or evaluate where would we have the highest possibility, likely of finding competent engineers and collaboration partners, we looked in parts of the country and ended up here," said Isaksson.

Vacon will be joined by LED lighting products innovator Cree and several other companies, along with a total of six universities to make up the public-private manufacturing institute.

Leoneda Inge is WUNC’s race and southern culture reporter, the first public radio journalist in the South to hold such a position. She also is co-host of the podcast Tested and host of the special podcast series, PAULI. Leoneda is the recipient of numerous awards from AP, RTDNA and NABJ. She’s been a reporting fellow in Berlin and Tokyo. You can follow her on Twitter @LeonedaInge.
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