A Better World Through Microelectronics
Things we use every day rely on microelectronics: transportation, utilities, appliances, lighting — the list can go on and on. Microelectronics changes the characteristics of electrical power to suit particular applications, and Dr. Edwin Piner’s specialty is the materials science that makes these applications possible.
Piner, a professor in Texas State’s physics department, holds more than 20 patents, has written for scores of professional publications and has a wealth of experience advancing new technologies. He answers some questions about his research at Texas State.
The best visual I can give you is the charger you use for your computer. The block on that charger is basically a power electronics unit. Coming out of the wall plug, you've got 120 volts and 60 hertz. Your computer cannot take that much power. So inside this block is power electronics that changes the voltage, minimizes the noise and any fluctuations that come over the line, dampens that.
Another example is electric vehicles. Under the hood of an electric vehicle are blocks and blocks of power electronics. What comes out of the battery — or the power generated by the combustion engine — is not what can be used inside the transmission system. So it has to be modified. All the circuitry involved in that is what encompasses power electronics.
What types of microelectronics research is happening at Texas State?
The material and the microelectronic systems we work on here at Texas State have certain benefits in terms of the performance we expect to get out of them versus what's available today. And those advantages are very well recognized by industry.
With high voltage, there’s always a big problem just turning something on and off. How do you turn off something that's running at that voltage? It's not easy to do, and there's also a time component — how quickly can you do it? Those features, among others, are limited in the current technology that's being used, and the technology we're developing here at Texas State has very clear benefits over what's currently available.
We're looking at making working devices and then, within the concept of the materials science, engineering and commercialization program, we make sure it is usable by industry. In other words, we're not going to do a one-off device that can never be reproduced. We're always looking to make sure the research we're doing has a clear pathway to becoming commercialized or industrialized.
Is there an industry push to find a better way of doing things, or did you decide to do research to see if there’s a better way?
There's been an industry push. In fact, the technology in most systems is silicon based, which is the same material in the computer chip, and it has been around for 60 or 70 years. But the devices are state of the art. They've been improved upon over those six or seven decades. What's in there today looks nothing like what was in there 60 or 70 years ago. Even the current technology is not stagnant. It's always improving. If they can’t improve the performance, they're looking to improve the reliability, making sure that they last for some reasonable period of time and looking to extend that.
Is there anything you’re doing that nobody else is doing?
Pretty much everything we do here is unique. In some cases, there's really very little in the prior art that would suggest that is the way to go. In other cases, we build substantially on what's already out there. It just depends on the nature of what we're trying to achieve in terms of what that end product is going to produce and how we get there.
My specialty is on the materials side. I collaborate with the engineers and the professors who specialize in the design side. What comes out of that collaboration usually is a better idea than what came to the table in the first place.
What are some of the current applications?
The biggest market currently for this type of technology is light-emitting diodes, or LEDs. A goal is to create a solid-state lighting solution to replace all light sources. Inside that bulb is a solid-state microelectronic chip that is producing the light, which uses less energy and lasts longer.
On solar panels and on windmills, the power that's generated is not the power that can be used. A solar panel generates DC current, not AC, which is what is in houses. And it's several hundreds of volts, not 120. An inverter changes that hundreds of volts in DC to 120 volts or 220 volts in AC. Same thing with windmills — the generator produces DC and hundreds of volts. In Europe, a big use would be electric rail transportation.
So without the material that you make, these things can't exist?
They can, but they're not going to be as efficient and they're not going to perform as well. Like any good industry, people are going to make do with what they have but they always want more.
How are you involved with STAR Park?
I am involved with the materials science, engineering and commercialization program and have several connections through that. One plan I have with my students is to start up a new company using microelectronics technology as the basis and then either commercialize it directly, or establish some other levels of conceptual proof and license it and sell it to a bigger industrial entity.