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Optical Switches for High-Power Systems

Silicon Power
Optically-Switched 15kV SiC Single-Bias High-Frequency Thyristor
ARPA-E Award: 
Malvern, PA
Project Term: 
05/15/2013 to 08/10/2015
Project Status: 
Technical Categories: 
Critical Need: 
All electric devices are built to operate with a certain type and amount of electrical energy, but this is often not the same type or amount of electrical energy that comes out of the outlet in your wall. Power converters modify electrical energy from the outlet to a useable current, voltage, and frequency for an electronic device. Power stations also use power converters on a larger scale to modify electrical energy so it can be efficiently transmitted. Today's power converters are inefficient because they are based on decades-old technologies and rely on expensive, bulky, and failure-prone components. Within the next 20 years, 80% of the electricity used in the U.S. will flow through these devices, so there is a critical need to improve their efficiency.
Project Innovation + Advantages: 
Silicon Power is developing a semiconducting device that switches high-power and high-voltage electricity using optical signals as triggers for the switches, instead of conventional signals carried through wires. A switch helps control electricity, converting it from one voltage or current to another. High-power systems generally require multiple switches to convert energy into electricity that can be transmitted through the grid. These multi-level switch configurations use many switches which may be costly and inefficient. Additionally, most switching mechanisms use silicon, which cannot handle the high switching frequencies or voltages that high-power systems demand. Silicon Power is using light to trigger its switching mechanisms, which could greatly simplify the overall power conversion process. Additionally, Silicon Power's switching device is made of silicon carbide instead of straight silicon, which is more efficient and allows it to handle higher frequencies and voltages.
Potential Impact: 
If successful, Silicon Power's new optical switches would help simplify and improve the overall efficiency of transmitting electricity from high-power, high-voltage systems--including renewable power sources--along the grid.
This project could contribute to a smarter, more reliable, more advanced, and secure electric grid.
More efficient power converters could help reduce U.S. electricity consumption, and in turn reduce the harmful emissions created by coal-fired power plants.
Efficient and affordable grid-scale power converters could help lower power bills for average consumers.
ARPA-E Program Director: 
Dr. Timothy Heidel
Project Contact: 
Mr. David Syracuse
Cree, Inc.
University of Illinois, Chicago
Release Date: