Silicon carbide semiconductor technology can shave 1,000 pounds off the weight of a Boeing Dreamliner.
That equates to big fuel and parts savings for Boeing and big money for the companies that can manufacture and commercialize the next-generation technology.
On Tuesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the creation of a $500 million power electronics consortium led by General Electric in Albany that would give companies a place to do just that. The state would pitch in $135 million to build the infrastructure for the consortium — a state-owned research and development facility at the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering’s NanoFab South campus in Albany — while GE Global Research in Niskayuna will pitch in more than $100 million as the anchor tenant at the new facility, as well as a decade’s worth of intellectual property, technology and know-how.
The rest of the investment is expected over the next five years from private companies looking to commercialize their own silicon carbide technology.
“If you had to pick half a dozen technologies that will define the next 20 or 30 years, power electronics is one of them,” said GE CEO Jeff Immelt, who flew in by helicopter to GE Global Research headquarters in Niskayuna for the announcement. “It’s what’s going to make our devices more fuel efficient and more energy efficient. It’s what’s going to affect miniaturization. It’s going to allow more power density in things like airplanes and automobiles and the oil-gas industry.”
Power electronics involves components that control and convert energy, and has applications in everything from airplanes and automobiles to wind turbines and computer tablets. The industry standard is currently silicon chips, but silicon carbide-based power electronic devices are more durable and efficient and can handle much higher frequencies and temperatures.
The consortium already has more than 100 business partners, including GlobalFoundries, IBM and Lockheed Martin. It’s expected to create more than 1,000 jobs, including at least 500 in the Capital Region.
No new hiring is expected at GE Global Research in Niskayuna as a result, but about 200 GE employees across the state will support the consortium. In the Capital Region, GE will leverage its two decades of silicon carbide expertise from its research center in Niskayuna and applications experts from its Renewable Energy and Battery businesses in Schenectady.
“Ultimately, we believe that GE’s technology leadership and role in the consortium will help the state in its efforts to attract thousands of new jobs from world-leading companies who want to develop and manufacture new power device applications with this next-generation technology platform,” said GE Global Research spokesman Jim Knapp.
GE has been developing silicon carbide technology for about two decades. This research and development has focused heavily on power electronics for the last decade, said Danielle Merfeld, technology director for electrical technologies and systems at the research center.
Over this time, GE has been able to manufacture its own 4-inch silicon carbide wafers from a clean room inside the Niskayuna research center. But it doesn’t have the infrastructure to develop and manufacture the lower-cost, high-performance 6-inch wafer everybody is after these days, she said.
For that reason, she said, it makes sense to put the infrastructure in one regional spot and let big and small companies alike have at it.
“There are quite a lot of small companies who are very interested in getting access to our recipe and the equipment to make this,” said Merfeld. “They may have their own recipes, too, and are working through universities and startups and garages, but they can’t actually break out and sell something unless they have a place to make it.”
The problem with the latest, greatest technology, Immelt said Tuesday, is it usually requires an “incredible amount” of capital to commercialize. As a result, small companies are left behind, unable to participate because they don’t have the vast resources of a company like GE.
“This not only helps GE,” he said, “but it helps hundreds of small and medium businesses that want to innovate here because it gives them a manufacturing location where they can test their innovations. This is what a public-private partnership can really do.”
The new facility will be the first of its kind in the U.S., several officials said Tuesday. It follows the same model used to get the Nanocollege up and running, Cuomo said.
“The state owns the building and equipment, so the companies have to come to New York to use it,” Cuomo said. “As Mr. Immelt said, it’s too expensive for a company really to do on its own, so the state’s investment and the collective builds the facility, the best on the planet, and interested companies come to us. It can’t move because we own it.”
Nanocollege CEO Alain Kaloyeros commended the billions of dollars in investments over the years to create a veritable nanotechnology corridor across upstate from Albany to Buffalo. Cuomo pointed to the Nanocollege as one of few exceptions to upstate New York’s long decline in jobs and manufacturing might.
GE was noticeably absent from this commentary, though Cuomo later said GE’s investment in the consortium demonstrates its commitment to upstate New York and the Capital Region. Immelt insisted no GE location is more “important or strategic” than in the Capital Region.
“This is where the heartbeat of GE is,” Immelt said, “and I always tell people if there were one place in GE that gives you a sense of the future, not just for the company, but for the world, I’d bring them right here to the Global Research Center in Niskayuna.”