There’s no question North Carolina State University is a hot-bed for innovation, so much so that the White House announced a $140 million hub at the university to develop the next generation of semiconductors.
Last month, President Barack Obama came to N.C. State to announce the Next Generation Power Electronics Innovation Institute. The hub will receive $70 million over five years from the U.S. Energy Department and at least $70 million more from universities, businesses and the state to develop advanced manufacturing processes that will enable large-scale production of wide bandgap semiconductors.
Semiconductors are at the heart of technologies like smart phones and televisions. The idea behind the push is that wide bandgap technologies will be the next step in the evolution of power electronics.
Silicon chips are now essential to power electronics, but the wide bandgap semiconductors are more powerful, smaller, more efficient and, potentially, could be cheaper.
“When we have power generated from a solar panel, we want that power to go to your house to power your appliance,” explained Alex Huang, , founder of the university’s semiconductor lab. “We don’t want the power to be lost due to the process of delivering. So this technology helps to make that delivering process more efficient.”
Now, the wide bandgap semiconductors are more expensive, but the concept is the integration of business and academic resources could find ways to funnel cheaper products to market.
The institute will be housed on Centennial Campus, home to another top innovation hub — N.C. State’s 2,000-square-foot Garage.
The Garage provides a meeting space for students to foster new ideas and work on entrepreneurial endeavors using cutting-edge tools and prototyping equipment like a 3D printer to create and invent.
While engineering has been in the spotlight with the semiconductor lab, the College of Textiles has a number of tricks up its sleeves, including a material for tights created by Suzanne Mathews that could help prevent injuries in dancers and maybe even athletes.
Also located on Centennial Campus is the Textile Protection and Comfort Center’s Thermal Protection Laboratory. There, PyroMan is playing an integral part in constructing life-saving uniforms for firefighters.
“Firefighters, military, industrial workers — we are trying to make sure they get as minimal amount of burns if they are in a dangerous situation,” explained T-PACC research assistant Alex Hummel.
PyroMan is a life-sized mannequin housed in an 11-foot by 18-foot fire test chamber that is used to evaluate the performance of thermal protective clothing. PyroMan takes the heat so firefighters don’t have to when they are in the field.
“We have eight industrial propane torches that we use to surround him with a fireball,” Hummel said. “That would be representative of what you would see in the worst-case scenario inside a house fire.”
Firefighter gear is heavy, causing heat stress and fatigue. At T-PACC, Hummel is part of a team manufacturing uniforms to help lighten the load.
“What we can do from our end is to help make things lighter with newer materials, and make them more effective,” Hummel said.
PyroMan, with his 122 heat sensors, puts those materials to the test.
“What they [the heat sensors] are doing is measuring the heat flux getting into the clothing to the skin,” Hummel said. “We can take the information from that and turn it into a burn prediction.”
He added, “The ultimate goal is to make sure what the firefighter is wearing is protecting them.”
Anyone interested in seeing PyroMan in action can attend an open house Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.