Department of Engineering / £11m semiconductor research centre could be key player in UK’s net zero mission

Department of Engineering

£11m semiconductor research centre could be key player in UK’s net zero mission

£11m semiconductor research centre could be key player in UK’s net zero mission

Silicon wafer for manufacturing semiconductor of integrated circuit.

The University of Cambridge is a partner in the new £11 million Innovation and Knowledge Centre (IKC) REWIRE, set to deliver pioneering semiconductor technologies and new electronic devices.

Power electronics is essential for green and sustainable energy. High efficiency, high power density, high reliability, and low-cost power converters will fundamentally improve the green and sustainable energy industry.

Professor Teng Long

Semiconductors, also known as microchips, are a key component in nearly every electrical device from mobile phones and medical equipment to electric vehicles. They are increasingly being recognised as an area of global strategic significance due to the integral role they play in net zero, AI and quantum technology.

Co-created and delivered with industry, the REWIRE IKC is led by the University of Bristol, in partnership with Cambridge and Warwick Universities.

The IKC will accelerate the UK’s ambition for net zero by transforming the next generation of high-voltage electronic devices using wide/ultra-wide bandgap (WBG/UWBG) compound semiconductors.

The project is being led by Professor Martin Kuball and his team at the University of Bristol. Cambridge members of the IKC team include Professor Rachel Oliver (Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy), and Professors Florin Udrea and Teng Long (Department of Engineering).

The Centre will advance the next generation of semiconductor power device technologies and enhance the security of the UK’s semiconductor supply chain.

Compound semiconductor WBG/UWBG devices have been recognised in the UK National Semiconductor Strategy as key elements to support the net zero economy through the development of high voltage and low energy-loss power electronic technology.

They are essential building blocks for developing all-electric trains, ships and heavy goods electric vehicles, better charging infrastructure, renewable energy and High Voltage Direct Current grid connections, as well as intelligent power distribution and energy supplies to telecommunication networks and data centres.

"Power devices are at the centre of all power electronic systems and pave the way for more efficient and compact power electronic systems, reducing energy loss," said Professor Kuball. "The REWIRE IKC will focus on power conversion of wind energy, electric vehicles, smart grids, high-temperature applications, device and packaging, and improving the efficiency of semiconductor device manufacture."

Our home electrical supply is at 240 Volts, but to handle the power from offshore wind turbines, devices will have to operate at thousands of Volts. These very high voltages can easily damage the materials normally used in power electronics.

"Newly emerging ultra-wide bandgap materials have properties which enable them to handle very large voltages more easily,” said Professor Oliver, who is Director of the Cambridge Centre for Gallium Nitride. “The devices based on these materials will waste less energy and be smaller, lighter and cheaper. The same materials can also withstand high temperatures and doses of radiation, which means they can be used to enable other new electricity generation technologies, such as fusion energy."

"I will be contributing my expertise in advanced power electronics packaging and power converter design," said Professor Long. "Power electronics is essential for green and sustainable energy; from renewable energy generation to electric vehicles, every watt of electrical power needs to be processed by power electronics-based power converters one to several times. High efficiency, high power density, high reliability, and low-cost power converters will fundamentally improve the green and sustainable energy industry."

"Wide bandgap semiconductors such as gallium nitride (GaN) and silicon carbide (SiC) offer a game-changing alternative to silicon in power electronics," said Professor Udrea. "The amazing physical properties of these materials translate into huge energy savings, and at the same time support a huge reduction in CO2 emissions. The High Voltage Microelectronics and Sensors Group at Cambridge has been very active in promoting these technologies for more than three decades." 

"The REWIRE IKC will play a prominent role within the UK’s semiconductor strategy, in cementing the UK’s place as a leader in compound semiconductor research and development, developing IP to be exploited here in the UK, rebuilding the UK semiconductor supply chain, and training the next generation of semiconductor materials scientists and engineers," said Professor Peter Gammon from the University of Warwick.

Industry partners in the REWIRE IKC include Ampaire, BMW, Bosch, Cambridge GaN Devices (CGD), Element-Six Technologies, General Electric, Hitachi Energy, IQE, Oxford Instruments, Siemens, ST Microelectronics and Toshiba.

REWIRE is one of two new IKCs announced being funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and Innovate UK, both part of UK Research and Innovation. The second IKC at the University of Southampton will improve development and commercialisation of silicon photonics technologies in the UK.

"This investment marks a crucial step in advancing our ambitions for the semiconductor industry, with these centres helping bring new technologies to market in areas like net zero and AI, rooting them right here in the UK," said Minister for Tech and the Digital Economy Saqib Bhatti. "Just nine months into delivering on the National Semiconductor Strategy, we are already making rapid progress towards our goals. This isn’t just about fostering growth and creating high-skilled jobs, it's about positioning the UK as a hub of global innovation, setting the stage for breakthroughs that have worldwide impact."

Written by Sarah Collins. This article is adapted from a University of Bristol media release and first appeared on the University of Cambridge website.

  • For more information on energy-related research in Cambridge, visit the Energy IRC, which brings together Cambridge’s research knowledge and expertise, in collaboration with global partners, to create solutions for a sustainable and resilient energy landscape for generations to come.

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