Harnessing the sun, powering the future

May 13, 2022

ASP is helping to energize the New Economy Initiative at the AMPED Science and Technology Center

Arizona is on the hunt for a high-tech industry, and one of the lures is being built by five science and technology centers by Arizona State University.

The centers are a key part of the New Economic Initiative, concealing an ambitious plan by government, industry and civic leaders to bring the state to the forefront of technological innovation.

Arizona’s economy has historically relied on the five Cs – cotton, cattle, citrus, climate and copper – plus growth and tourism.

To prosper, the 21st century needs more. Technology moves quickly, but ASU’s status as a research university means faculty work on the very cutting edge of it.

ASU has already launched two science and technology centers, or STCs. One is the MADE (Manufacturing, Automation and Data Engineering) STC; read about it here.

And the other – the AMPED (Advanced Materials, Processes and Energy Devices) STC – is focusing on the three key components needed to electrify the entire energy sector, from automotive to the utility grid: photovoltaics (solar), batteries and power electronics.

AMPED is directed by Zach Holman, an Associate Professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering. The center is located in ASU’s Research Park in Tempe.

Those three components are required to be significantly larger than they are available now, and with much greater flexibility and capability. AMPED works on the materials, converting them into devices, then using those systems in products.

Video of New Economy Initiative: Science and Technology Centers: Arizona State University (ASU)

Video by Ken Fagan / ASU News

At the Research Park, work on the heavy facilities and equipment that is available. The solar fabrication lab is being augmented with new battery fabrication and test facilities and new semiconductor tool sets to boost power electronics research.

Using these labs and tools, researchers will work on things like charging an electric vehicle (or discharging one) or converting the DC power generated by solar to the AC power that is used in the grid. How do you generate more power per area for a solar panel? Efficiency is a key cost driver for the cost of solar power (and an important metric by which manufacturers compete against each other).

As Elon Musk famously said, “Batteries suck.” How do you store more energy per battery? Energy is not the only issue. How fast can you charge or discharge the battery? Accelerating in an electric car is not dependent on how much energy is stored in the batteries.

“How fast can you get the energy out?” Holman said.

That is a challenge that goes to the level of the materials, how they are arranged and how they work together.

Batteries are a huge reason renewable energy is not what it could be yet. How many batteries would need to charge all day and then power the city of Phoenix overnight? How about a powering place that gets very little sun in the winter and charging batteries during the summer?

“Think of the size of a battery as a vehicle,” Holman said. “And then you start asking, what would I need to power a city for hours, let alone weeks? And it’s huge. “

Two drawbacks to batteries are energy density and power. How far can your electric car go on a charge? That ‘s energy density. How long does it take to charge it? That ‘s power. No one wants to go on a road trip and spend two hours waiting for the car to juice up.

Working through these puzzles is the work of this new center.

So how do the science and technology centers operate? How do they work with companies?

It starts by funding collaborative research projects with companies. Twice a year the STC holds a proposal day. ASU faculty and people from across the industry get together and define what the state of the art is, what the gaps are and what is needed. What are the pressing problems within the area of ​​solar batteries and power electronics? (At the last proposal day in February, about 170 people showed up.)

The STC directors and the thrust leads, who are in charge of the batteries and car electronics concentrations within the STCs, write a funding opportunity announcement. That says any team that has an ASU principal investigator and a company that has agreed to co-invest in a project is eligible for funding by the STC and can apply with a proposal to the announcement. Those will then be reviewed by a panel of both ASU and industry representatives, and projects will be selected for funding. Those will be projects that are one to two years in length. It doesn’t even have to be an engineering faculty member.

It could be someone working from a business school on a critical supply chain for battery materials, for example, as long as they have a company that has agreed to co-invest in the project.

“We need buy-in commitment from companies,” Holman said. “And on the other hand, the companies get access to brilliant ASU minds, potential workforce in students who could become future employees, with the STC covering a lot of the cost of associated research and the projects they care about.”

Companies can also invest in state-of-the-art infrastructure that enables work within and outside of those projects. Holman said the center is bringing in some new conductor tools that are relevant for power electronics. Those are going into core facilities with STC funding.

“They may bring new capabilities for research into these thrust areas because good research is done with good tools and oftentimes unique research is done with unique tools,” he said. “So that’s another thing that we’re investing in capital equipment.”

The third investment by the Center is in education workforce development. That happens in a number of ways. One is hands-on lab training in select areas.

“A great example of a program that we call Solar Cells 101,” said Holman. “It’s weeklong in the lab, learning how to do every step of solar cell fabrication – module, fabrication and characterization. This program has been running since the STCs, and as an inspiration, we’re going to grow it into additional areas like batteries and power electronics. With the STC funding we’ve had companies that every new employee they hire, they send to ASU to take this starter course before they get started at the company. “

High school students, researchers from other universities and national labs, and people from small and large companies all have taken the course. Federal employees who are program manager in the course so that they can better understand the people that they are funding and supporting.

Another part of the workforce development is supporting students through what are called impact engineering fellowships. Those fellowships for graduate students go to spend time at a company or another organization doing something beyond their scope of regular research as a graduate student but related, extending the impact of that research. The center funds that.

It’s different from a typical internship because an internship would pay off for a company on a project. It could be defined as a semester- or summerlong project by the graduate student, their advisor and the company that concludes with the student’s research, but may also be involved in using a company.

A final part of the workforce development piece is entrepreneurial fellowships for students and postdocs who are creating new companies and new ventures based on STC research.

“We have a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem at the university,” Holman said. “So there is funding to support businesses being launched based on STC innovation. Those are all the things that the STC is doing with the state’s money to bring about the new economy. “

More about the NEI

Top illustration by Alex Davis / ASU

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