Silicon Carbide Applications: Small Device, Broad Impact in Power Electronics

It’s not every day that the engineers at GE Global Research get their hands on a material that’s literally revolutionizing an industry… or is it? Thanks to recent technology advancements and a budding public-private consortium with SUNY Polytechnic Institute, GE is knee-deep in silicon carbide (SiC) technology. This next generation power semiconductor takes advantage of a wide bandgap to deliver inherent strength and durability that is well suited to power applications. SiC-based power devices are poised to take over for the silicon-based chips that are currently used in the majority of applications that convert and use electricity.

Silicon Carbide Product Manager Peter Sandvik is part of a newly dedicated team at Global Research that’s charged with delivering customer-ready devices to customers both inside and outside of GE. This team has an intimate understanding of SiC, having developed these advanced devices for nearly 10 years.

“Over the past four to five decades as SiC has emerged as a viable replacement to Silicon, GE has taken on a huge effort to explore the sensible applications in which it can be applied,” said Peter. “We needed to see where it made sense and what engineering was needed within each application to ensure SiC would perform to its utmost abilities.”

“SiC is by no means a plug and play technology,” Peter said. “A customized module holds multiple SiC chips for high power ratings. Integrating SiC technology into an existing product, like an aircraft’s electrical system, for example, requires a deep understanding of the existing electric system in order to capitalize on the full potential of the technology.”

GE Aviation has long been a collaborator with the Global Research SiC team. Bringing together the researchers’ expertise with SiC and the GE Aviation engineers’ deep product knowledge enables the team to take advantage of SiC’s high efficiency and high power ratings in a comparatively smaller package.

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Global Research is also working closely with GE’s Power Conversion business, which includes high performance controllers, power electronics, and motors for energy, marine, and industrial applications.

“Power Conversion is a great space for SiC as there are numerous applications that could potentially benefit from the technology,” said Kathleen O’Brien, Ph.D., Global Research’s R&D portfolio leader for GE Energy Management. As the liaison between Global Research and Power Conversion, Kathleen has been heavily involved in the vetting process for SiC in GE’s products.

“GE is a pioneer of SiC technology and a leading developer of SiC-based devices. As Peter described, the customized modules that house these devices require a complete engineering overhaul of the products they are going in. This involves modification of the interior parts and assurance that the SiC device can provide enough benefit to justify complete reengineering,” said Kathleen. “It’s basically a big puzzle that brings together the engineers who created the technology and the engineers who are incorporating the technology into real-life applications.”

This collaborative approach is what sets GE apart in the SiC space. “Our clear line of sight to all of GE’s businesses makes for a seamless and shared focus on delivering for our customers,” said Peter. “Our knowledge and lessons learned from incorporating SiC into one product flows onto the next project, making SiC a true GE Store technology.”

One of the first Power Conversion products to explore SiC was the solar inverter. “After nearly 10 years of engineering GE is launching its SiC solar inverter, which will transform solar power generation by reducing power loses by 50%,” said Kathleen. “We are currently working with Peter’s team to ensure we can meet customer demand at launch and simultaneously with Power Conversion’s commercial team to build a roadmap for where we will go next.”

Other GE applications that stand to benefit from SiC technology include: Energy Management’s wind power converters, UPS, and marine engines; GE Healthcare’s MRI machines; and auxiliary and traction converters for GE Transportation products.

To accelerate the commercialization of SiC, GE, New York State, and the Colleges of Nanoscale Science and Engineering in Albany have created the New York Power Electronics Manufacturing Consortium (NY-PEMC). Announced in July 2014, the more than $200 million partnership brings together an array of businesses to boost production and drive down the cost of manufacturing SiC-based devices.

“This unique and comprehensive partnership will allow us to bring our products to market faster because the more than 100 NY-PEMC partner companies will have access to state-of-the-art six-inch SiC tools and a baseline process flow for partners, offered by GE,” said Peter. “They can make their own enhancements in preparation for high volume, cost-effective manufacturing, but our roadmap will help ensure a seamless industry transition from Si-based chips to SiC-based chips.”

The announcement of a state-funded packaging facility in Utica, NY will also help to bring SiC to market faster. “We are forever exploring new avenues that make sense for commercialization,” said Peter. “We are excited for what comes next for SiC as are our NY-PEMC partners.”

GE continues to research and develop SiC devices with the technical depth and industry breadth that only a diverse company like GE can provide. Ushering in next generation technology is no easy feat, but with the technical knowledge and experience of 3,600 of the world’s best scientists and engineers, the future for GE is definitely bright.

New York's "Silicon Carbide Corridor" grows with the establishment of a packaging facility in Utica.
New York’s “Silicon Carbide Corridor” grows with the establishment of a packaging facility in Utica.