Breaker technologies for DC power grids: research seeks a solid-state solution

Breaker technologies for DC power grids: research seeks a solid-state solution

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By eeNews Europe

According to a statement released by Infineon, Direct current offers many advantages compared to the conventional alternating current used today: For example, losses in power grids and electric devices are a total of 5 to 7% smaller than with alternating current. Direct current also makes it possible to more efficiently feed electric energy from regenerative sources into power grids and energy storage and to improve grid stability; with direct current it would be possible to build much more compact electric devices.

In the past the lack of efficient and cost-effective circuit breaker technologies has made it impossible to fully exploit the potentials of direct current, e.g. in distribution grids in data centres, photovoltaics and telecommunication systems or in on-board grids for aviation and shipping, electric vehicles and railway technology. The only electromechanical circuit breakers available today carry the risk of arcing when switching direct current and voltages; furthermore they are slow to react, heavy, unwieldy and expensive.

Funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), the “NEST-DC” research project aims to investigate the foundations of an innovative semiconductor-based and completely electronic circuit breaker for DC power grids and applications. The new circuit breaker should be able to switch direct current on, and most importantly switch it off, as quickly and safely as possible at voltages of up to 1,500V. Among other things NEST-DC will explore innovative semiconductor components such as the Over Current Blocking Field Effect Transistor (OCB-FET). New structure and connection technologies and switching topologies for the circuit breakers that will use OCB-FETs are to be formulated and tested. There will be demonstrators for the project results in the areas of on-board aviation grids, electromobility and photovoltaics, as well as for direct current distribution networks.

NEST-DC research partners represent the complete value creation chain from the semiconductor chip all the way to the DC power grid system. The team includes the University of Bremen’s Institute for Electrical Drives, Power Electronics, and Devices (IALB) and the four companies Airbus Group, E-T-A Elektrotechnische Apparate GmbH, Siemens AG and Infineon Technologies AG (project coordination). Support is also being provided by the European Center for Power Electronics e.V. (ECPE), headquartered in Nuremberg, Germany.

Within the project, the IALB will handle investigation and simulation of novel semiconductor structures for use in the OCB-FETs, static and dynamic measurement of the newly developed circuit breakers and testing their thermal behaviour and destruction limits. Airbus Group Innovations will define the requirements for aviation applications, researching a suitable topology and developing a demonstrator together with the NEST-DC partners. The hardware tests will be carried out by Airbus Group in Ottobrunn, Germany.

Siemens will concentrate on the structure and connection technologies of the circuit breakers. E-T-A Elektrotechnische Apparate will define the requirements for industrial applications and, together with the partners, will validate the circuit breakers for voltage classes up to 1,500V. Infineon is leading the project, contributing its power semiconductor expertise and researching power semiconductors intended for use in the OCB-FETs.

The NEST-DC research project is receiving approximately €2.3 million in support from the BMBF in the context of the “Power Electronics for Increasing Energy Efficiency” funding focus area. The project began in October 2013 and will run for three years. NEST-DC is an abbreviation for (in German) “ Innovative Electronic Direct Current Circuit Breakers for Renewable Energies and On-Board Power Networks”.

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