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UT Awarded $2.8 Million DOE Grant to Modernize the Nation’s Electric Power Grid

Validating its status as a leader in power electronics for grid and aviation applications, the University of Tennessee has been awarded a grant from the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) of the US Department of Energy (DOE) to help modernize the nation’s power grid.

Improving the Power Grid

ARPA-E is distributing $42 million for 15 projects across 11 states to improve the reliability, resiliency, and flexibility of the domestic power grid through the development of next-generation semiconductor technologies.

Funded through ARPA-E’s Unlocking Lasting Transformative Resiliency Advances by Faster Actuation of power Semiconductor Technologies (ULTRAFAST) program, the technologies being developed would enable more effective control of grid power flow and better protection of critical infrastructure assets.

Developing a Switch Module

UT is receiving $2,759,821 to develop scalable, light-triggered semiconductor switch modules with integrated optical sensing for the protection of the grid and aviation power systems. Dubbed as a UNIVERSAL (Ultrafast, Noise-Immune, Versatile, Efficient, Reliable, Scalable, and Accurate Light-controlled) Switch module, it seeks to achieve cost savings, fast switching speeds, and built-in redundancy by using sub-modules featuring lower-voltage and lower-current silicon carbide semiconductor devices for desired higher application voltage and current levels. In this project, a 25 kilo-volt switch module capable of switching off 2.5 kilo-amp current will be developed and demonstrated.

Min H. Kao Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Professor and Condra Chair of Excellence in Power Electronics Fred Wang is the principal investigator. The Co-PI’s are Professor Kevin Bai and Research Assistant Professors Ruirui Chen and Shimul Dam. All of them are part of CURENT.

“This keeps UT at the forefront of power electronics technologies for grid and aviation applications,” Wang said. “Future electric grid will be dominated by power electronics interfaced energy sources like wind and solar and loads like EV chargers and data centers. The new grid will have much faster dynamics than today’s rotating machinery-based grid and will require much faster control and protection. Our proposed UNIVERSAL Switch module can interrupt a fault current in micro-second range, several orders of magnitude faster than the mechanical switch used today. It is also designed to have comparable efficiency and lifetime with the mechanical switches and can definitely help to enable the future power electronics dominated grid. The same technology can also be applied to future aircraft with electrified propulsion, which requires fast, efficient, and light-weight protection devices. DOE recognized the need for this kind of technology and that is why they fund this project.”

Collaborating with Industry Leaders

UT is working in collaboration with seven partners on this project, including long-time CURENT Industry Consortium members Dominion Energy and Boeing. As a leading US utility company, Dominion Energy will provide guidance on grid application design, while the global aerospace industry leader Boeing will provide guidance on aviation application design. Eaton, a leading US electrical equipment manufacturer, will provide support on the UNIVERSAL Switch module design and testing, while leading the technology-to-market activities. This project also involves several academic partners, with Clemson University focusing on optical sensing, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) on optical controller, Drexel University on wireless power control and sensing, and the University of Houston on application use case study. UT will be responsible for overall switch module design, integration, build and testing.

Wang anticipates the three-year project beginning in the spring of 2024. All of UT’s work will be done on campus.

“It is pretty challenging to work with so many organizations and people with different specialties. In this case, the optical part is totally new to us,” Wang said. “It will be beneficial to work on it, especially for our students. It will open their eyes to other ideas and possibilities. This will be very good for their education and training, which is always the most important part of our work at UT.”

Developing Power Technologies at UT

UT’s UNIVERSAL Switch modules are controlled by light instead of electrical signals to minimize the electromagnetic interference and to simplify electrical isolation and insulation design. The light control will also be extremely fast and accurate, making them easy to be used in series and in parallel to achieve higher desired voltage and current for different applications. The modular structure will help to reduce cost and increase reliability, according to Wang.

“In the past decade, UT has led several DOE sponsored multi-million dollar projects developing power electronics technologies for distribution grids, which are usually around 10 to 15 kV voltage level. This will be the first project targeting transmission grid, which can be at tens to hundreds of kV voltage levels,” Wang said. “Although each of our modules will be only at 25 kV, it can be relatively easily stacked up to higher voltages with its modular structure and optical isolation design. It can be used for future high voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission, offshore wind transmission, and many other scenarios that require fast protection. We are extremely excited about its potential.”


Rhiannon Potkey (865-974-0683,