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Professor earns grant for energy research

Alex Cao | Thursday, December 12, 2013

The U.S. Department of Energy Advanced Research Project Agency awarded a $2,496,428 grant to a research team led by Notre Dame Electrical Engineering Professor Grace Xing in October.

Xing’s team of researchers from the University of Notre Dame and three tech companies – IQE, TriQuint and the United Technology Research Center – is working to improve the process of converting and distributing electricity.

“If you look at electricity after it’s generated, we have various means: we have hydro-power, wind power, solar power – we have various ways of producing [energy],” Xing said. “This electricity has to be converted to higher voltages so it can be transmitted and distributed. … This power signal has to be converted … sometimes by stepping up voltage, sometimes by changing the frequency.”

Xing said researchers could streamline the energy production process.

“The current technology is very bulky and not efficient, especially the ones converting electricity at higher frequencies. … If you think of delivering power, you think of power distribution, like huge towers, wires, ceramics, insulators and inductors,” she said. “We are looking to miniaturize that landscape so that it can be better distributed and that we can be more efficient. … For example, you don’t connect your computer directly to the wall, you plug it into a power converter block. … Potentially, we can get rid of the power converter block.”

Xing said she hopes to make the process sleeker, smaller and more efficient by making power-converting devices with a relatively new material called gallium nitride.

“Gallium Nitride is a type of semiconductor, not really the most heard-of semiconductor – that’s called Silicon,” she said. “That is the backbone of all of our modern electronics. You have silicon in your car, phone, computer. It’s in all the electronics you can think of including power stations. Some of them use silicon.”

“So the technology we’re using uses a semiconductor called gallium nitride. Gallium nitride is a relatively new semiconductor in comparison to silicon. … It has only been worked on for 25 years, but if you have used blu-ray disks or white LED’s, you have been using gallium nitride devices.”  

The same thickness of material of silicon supports 100 volts of energy but the same amount of gallium nitride supports 1,000 volts, Xing said.

Xing said she thinks this research will benefit public infrastructure or engineering research.

“[We hope that] our device can be used as a replacement for our current infrastructure or for engineers to help develop the next-generation of infrastructure,” she said.

Contact Alex Cao at acao@nd.edu