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Electronics against climatic change

The new power electronics offer devices which can work in very extreme conditions and are able to deal with the renewable energy challenges. The new LIA Wide Lab, a Franco-Spanish laboratory, works in this field.


For all the renewable energy infrastructures, such as the wind turbines that have high voltages, the new power electronics is essential.  Last March a workshop took place to introduce the Associated International Laboratory LIA Wide Lab. The lab is focused on power electronics and is composed of three laboratories in Spain and France at the Instituto de Microelectrónica de Barcelona (IMB-CNM) of the CSIC, the Laboratoire Ampère (INSA-Lyon), and the Laboratoire d’Analyse et d’Architecture des Systèmes (LAAS), in Toulouse. Both laboratories in France depend on the CNRS.

Power electronics is behind the devices which regulate energy use in electronic gadgets, household appliances and cars. For instance: battery chargers, converters of the so called “inverter” technology or power electronics in electric cars. Their improvement in the last years has made possible to have appliances that regulate and save energy. In the actual context of climatic change, having infrastructures that allow a reduction on our dependence on fossil fuels is a great challenge. Actually, this is one of the main lines of the new Horizon 2020 European research program.

A new generation materials

Until now, power devices have been made on silicon. But silicon has limitations in extreme conditions, such as high voltage and high temperatures. In the last few years, new materials are being studied: silicon carbide, gallium nitride and diamond. They are the so-called “wide gap” materials, which would allow more efficient and robust power systems, suitable to withstand adverse conditions.  Silicon carbide and gallium nitride technologies are mature enough for industrial and commercial applications.

José Millán, research professor at the CSIC, explains that “at temperatures higher than 200 C, silicon is not any more a semiconductor. And the higher the voltage of a device, the higher temperature that will be generated. Silicon carbide pumps out the heat better than silicon, which makes it better to resist much higher temperatures”

For all high-powered sectors, such as renewable energy, the new power electronics is essential

Another advantage of silicon carbide is that it is easier to encapsulate than silicon. As a matter of fact, encapsulating silicon chips is even more expensive than their production.  “This aspect is essential  in the case of electric vehicles”, adds professor Millán, “where the power devices, placed next to the motor, have to be protected and to withstand high temperatures”.

All the participants in the LIA Wide Lab workshop, in Barcelona.For all high-powered sectors, such as renewable energy, the new power electronics is essential, points out Millán. Solar cells, which can reach high temperatures; wind turbines that have high voltages; or the ‘smart grid’, which has to distribute energy at several points and to consumers with very diverse needs.

Biomedical sensors and a X-ray demonstrator

There are more examples of developments at the IMB-CNM. For instance, the impedance needles, biomedical sensors made on silicon carbide. In this case, the silicon carbide is stronger and makes the needles virtually impossible to break.  Another example is the X-ray demonstrator, which is being developed in a project with the Delft University and Philips. The prototype is not only smaller and lighter than a conventional one, but also reduces the radiation dose that a patient receives. “The unit”, clarifies José Millán, “works at a higher frequency which makes it faster and less time means also less radiation”.

LIA Wide-LAb: http://wide-lab.eu/

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