Our coverage of the U.S.-sponsored manufacturing innovation institutes has been consistently revelatory—and the Manufacturing USA Update is no exception. PowerAmerica is working to maintain dominance in the production of silicon carbide (SiC) chips, which outperform silicon. And PowerAmerica is at the end of its six-year funding from the Department of Energy.
If PowerAmerica fails, history will be repeated: The story of American innovators developing silicon chips for power electronics and then seeing production slip away to manufacturers in East Asia is all too familiar.
Victor Veliadis, executive director and CTO at PowerAmerica, is of course determined to succeed. The institute was instrumental in fostering production processes, developing a reliability center and establishing a domestic fabrication industry for SiC chips.
However, for the U.S. to remain competitive in the SiC industry, it needs to retrofit old silicon chip fabs and automate production, he said. Current domestic production is primarily through leveraging capacities in existing silicon chip fabs.
“What you can do with SiC is breathe new life into otherwise-obsolete fabs that do older silicon technology that’s kind of running out of steam,” Veliadis said. “By using older, fully depreciated equipment, overhead costs go down.”
Needed now is mass production to further reduce the chips’ price, he added. The best hope for the demand for mass-produced SiC chips lies with electric vehicles. And EVs happen to be a big part of President Joe Biden’s proposed infrastructure plan.
The institute is sustainably supported by member dues, said Randy Bickford, director of research administration and communication.
“We are also looking for additional federal funding,” he said. “We think there’s a desire on the part of Manufacturing USA and related federal agencies that they’d like to see us continue.”