Power-Packed Research

June 06, 2008

Someday in the not-too-distant future, a wealth of electricity generated by sunshine and wind will stand prepared to flood the nations' power grids.

Dr. Alex Huang wants the grids to be ready.

Huang, the Progress Energy Distinguished Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering, Directs the Semiconductor Power Electronics Center (SPEC), a research group on Centennial Campus that wants to boost the capacity of existing power grids and integrate them with renewable energy sources such as solar and wind.  Developing this technology is difficult; the giant grids handle millions of watts of power.

"For a university to do experimental research in this area is not easy," Huang said.  "And NC State is a leader in this area."

Dr. Alex Huang, Electrical and Computer Engineering
Dr. Alex Huang, Electrical and Computer Engineering

Huang's work focuses on power electronics, technology that converts electric power into a form that consumers can use or that can be injected into the grid.  Power electronics can enable grids to carry more power so utilities get the most out of their existing transmission-and-distribution infrastructure.

The group is also looking at ways to move alternative energies onto the grid.  SPEC is working with a utility in Oregon to integrate wind-produced power into the network using Emitter Turn-off Thyristor (ETO) technology, which improves the speed and efficiency of power electronics systems.  The technology, developed in the past several years with support from the Department of Energy and a number of utilities, can switch on and off at megawatt levels at 1000 times per second.  Last year SPEC also became the first group to demonstrate a silicon-carbide-based ETO device that can potentially switch 10 times faster than silicon ETO.

Huang also looks ahead to a day when hybrid plug-ins-vehicles running on gasoline and batteries that plug into power grids-might be widely used.  His team is looking to develop electronics that operate at higher temperatures for vehicles and examining ways to manage a power grid unaccustomed to lots of charging and discharging cars.

Huang will be a key player in the Advanced Transportation Energy Center, which will conduct research to advance more widespread use of plug-in hybrid vehicles.  North Carolina Governor Mike Easley announced the creation of the new center in February; it will be located on Centennial Campus.

"This is a totally new challenge and new opportunity," Huang said.  "And you need power electronics and information technology to manage it."