Power Up

Advanced Power Electronics

National center leads revision of electric grid, invention of better materials

A local power failure in Ohio 10 years ago caused a series of cascading power failures that resulted in a massive blackout, affecting 50 million people and causing billions of dollars in damage and lost revenue.

How will the United States maintain reliable electrical power while also meeting an ever-increasing demand for energy and reliable electrical power?

Its first steps are to invest in resources and infrastructure and to enable advanced manufacturing. One of the nation’s critical investments is the National Center for Reliable Electric Power Transmission at the University of Arkansas.

The test center, known by its abbreviation NCREPT, can harness up to 6 megawatts of electricity — enough to power more than 300 homes — to simulate the electrical grid and test the performance and reliability of power electronic devices, from new devices such as chargers for electric vehicles to redesigns for out-of-date safety devices for the power grid.

“Research at NCREPT addresses things the world will always need: faster, cheaper and smaller electronic devices, and reliable, distributed and renewable sources of energy,” said Alan Mantooth, Distinguished Professor of electrical engineering and director of the national center. “We’re going from basic science all the way to commercialization. Our center will provide a transformation in electronics technologies that will positively impact the world through energy, the environment and the economy.”

NCREPT is the highest-powered test facility at any university in the United States. The 7,000-square-foot center, located at the Arkansas Research and Technology Park, was established with funds from the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation and the University of Arkansas.

The national center develops and accelerates power electronics technologies for the electric power grid and serves as a resource for researchers and industry. For example, one project at the center used collaboration between the university, the private Arkansas Power Electronics International, the Rohm Co. Ltd. and the Sandia National Laboratories to create a high-temperature silicon-carbide power module. It won an R&D 100 award from R&D Magazine in 2009, and it spurred development of a battery charger that won another R&D 100 award in 2014.

Researchers recently completed their design of integrated circuits that can survive at temperatures greater than 350 degrees Celsius – or roughly 660 degrees Fahrenheit. Funded by the National Science Foundation, this research will improve the functioning of processors, drivers, controllers and other analog and digital circuits used in power electronics, automobiles and aerospace equipment – all of which must perform at high and often extreme temperatures.

Other research at the national center includes the development of a solid-state fault current limiter, a device that can help prevent blackouts on the grid, such as the one that originated in Ohio. When used with existing circuit breaker technologies, the solid-state fault current limiter can enable those breakers to remain in service for many more years, thus lowering maintenance and operating costs.

The National Center for Reliable Electric Power Transmission – just one way the University of Arkansas is changing the world.

Mantooth holds the Twenty-First Century Endowed Chair in Mixed-Signal IC Design and CAD.